I’m absolutely and utterly naked, standing beneath a vast, domed ceiling filled with intricate panels of colored glass. Something with vines and flowers, I think, but I can’t be sure at this distance. The late morning light spilling through from above makes waves of patterned light that flicker across the surface of the ancient pool in front of me. Beneath my feet, the marble floor is cool and damp, and I feel slightly lightheaded at the intense, exquisite loveliness of this space. And oddly comfortable, despite my nudity and the presence of strangers in the water. Such is the power of beautiful surroundings, I think. For the moment, even my quarrel with age and gravity is suspended, and I slip into the warm waters of Baden Baden’s Friedrichsbad feeling perfectly at home.
Baden Baden always has that sort of effect on me. A small haven located in Germany’s west at the feet of the Black Forest, it’s bordered on one side by the Upper Rhine, and rests close to vineyards nourished by the River Oos. Long ago, Roman soldiers lingered here, finding rejuvenation in thermal springs that had already attracted residents dating back to the Stone Age, close to 10,000 years ago. Bronze age tombs have also been found here, and though the later Roman legacy of regal buildings was destroyed during a fire in 1689, it was rebuilt with splendidly ornate structures that now house hotels and public buildings, linked by wide expanses of parkland and gardens.
The area’s 12 thermal springs are the natural result of subterranean fault lines found in the rock beneath the upper Rhine. Besides these natural springs, wells and tunnels were constructed to help supply the city’s bathing halls. The city’s beauty and healing legacy have lured visitors for centuries, and it led to its choice as a fashionable destination for Europe’s nobility, authors, and philosophers, all of who came to soak in the curative thermal waters.
I begin all pilgrimages here at the historic Friedrichsbad, also known as the Roman Irish Baths. Considered one of Europe’s most magnificent bathhouses, it opened in 1877 under the guidance of an Irish physician called Dr. Barter, who directed the combination of traditional Irish hot air baths and Roman multi-temperature thermal immersion baths. In many parts of Europe, including Germany, a place name that begins with “sBad” designates the location of healing waters. In Baden Baden, the mineral content varies from spring to spring, but there are significant levels of sodium, potassium, lithium, calcium, chloride, magnesium, bromide, and sulfates that give the local waters their therapeutic qualities.
I offer silent thanks to Dr. Barter as I move serenely from one vaulted room to the next, beginning with a shower and a warm air bath, which involves relaxing on a wooden chaise lounge in a soothingly warm room. The next room is hotter, and is followed by another shower. In the next room, I’m guided onto a table, where a spa attendant delivers a very no-nonsense soap brush massage, during which I’m vigorously (but not unpleasantly) scrubbed from shoulders to toes with a soapy brush. I rinse off and head into the first of two thermal steam baths, followed by a thermal whirlpool bath and a long, luxurious soak in the glorious domed bathing temple.
After another shower, there’s a cold-water bath in water that’s about 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, I’m wrapped in a cozy, warm towel by another attendant, then led into a room where I’m instructed to slather myself with moisturizing cream. After I’m finished, the attendant leads me to a room filled with reclining chairs and beds, and wraps me in a blanket for a half-hour nap. I don’t know who first came up with the idea of whiling away an afternoon soaking in a pool of hot water, but I want to thank her (I’m convinced it was a woman).
New and Newer
Next door to the Friedrichsbad, the massive Caracalla Spa rises in modern glass magnificence. Named for the Roman Emperor Caracalla, who traveled here in search of the promise of better health offered by the springs, it opened in 1985. Along with multiple bathing pools, steam baths, and saunas, there’s a wellness lounge that offers a full range of body treatments, massages, and facials. Though tempting, I’m heading to an even newer spa property on the far side of town. I follow the meandering cobbled streets through an area filled with shops and cafes, pausing just long enough for a cup of tea on a beautiful patio overlooking the center of the city.
My destination is Brenner’s Park Hotel & Spa, located on Lichtentaler Allee, the long lane that serves as a sort of central thoroughfare bordering the spa park. Grand and sprawling, it once belonged to Anton Alois Brenner, a court tailor. Today, the luxury property has earned a German eco certificate for getting all of its energy from a hydropower plant. Maybe it’s the buttery color of the exterior and wrought iron balconies, or the striped awnings over the top floor windows, but its majestic sedateness is offset by the vague suggestion of a festive 19th century seaside hotel.
I make my way through a lovely, enormous lobby area filled with overstuffed sofas and chairs, and follow a hall leading to the new spa complex. It’s a little different than I’m used to, and the space is broken up into separate suites that correspond with specific product lines, including Kanebo from Japan, Futuresse from Germany, Sisley from France, Mt. Sapola of Thailand, and SkinCeuticals from the US. The hotel also has a private label line called Brenner’s Park Hotel Spirit of Jaipur, along with an extensive medical spa with nutritional and naturopathic services, all built on the concept of prevention and whole-person wellness.
A spa attendant, sensing my confusion, leads me to the reception desk, where I check in for my Intensive Hydration Phyto-Aromatique facial. I’ve chosen the Sisley line of products for their high botanical content, and because I know that the line’s founder, Hubert d’Ornano, spent years researching the benefits of various plant extracts for skin health. The treatment turns out to be luxurious and relaxing, with a wonderful face and neck massage mid-way through, and my skin glows for days afterwards.
Later, I slip into the new Museum Frieder Burda across from the spa park, where there’s an exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter (the blue rider), a collection of works by a small group of artists that included Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Strolling through the park and its lush gardens afterwards, I can’t resist finding a bench beneath a shade tree for a session of dog watching. It seems that the entire population of Baden-Baden and their canine companions have chosen the same part of the afternoon for a promenade, and in no time at all, I lose count of the number of well-behaved dogs that go trotting by, their people attached at the far end of the leash.
Not to downplay the contribution of Romans, but the medical system of Ayurveda dates back at least 5,000 years. Though native to India and Sri Lanka, it’s since found its way around the world, and the wellness community of Baden-Baden is no exception. In the historic Victoria building on stylish Sophienstrasse, smack in the heart of the town, an authentic Ayurvedic center called Devaya offers a range of therapies administered by staff from India and Sri Lanka. Devaya’s services are so comprehensive and exclusive, guests are limited to no more than four per day, making me feel especially privileged as I make my way up a wide, curved stairway to the spa door for my full day of healing.
The interior is a sanctuary of art and sunlight. Founder Daniela Peisger greets me, leading me along a hallway to the office of Raj Kumar Bhati, the staff Vaidya (Ayurvedic physician) for my initial consultation. As gracious and elegant as the surroundings, he takes my pulse, examines my tongue, asks detailed questions, and recommends specific treatments and lifestyle suggestions that help him to determine not only my dosha (one of three primary constitutional types recognized in Ayurvedic medicine), but ways to bring my Vata self into optimal balance.
My first treatment is an Udvartana, a full body peeling massage with powdered herbs. Chosen for my dosha, the herbs were selected to have a detoxifying effect. Afterwards, I’m escorted to a steam chamber. A wooden bed riddled with round holes and covered by a domed plastic covering extending from my neck downwards, it has a compartment underneath it – a sort of wooden cupboard – where my therapist, Mr. Kaluperuma, places a large basin of steaming water. I lay there for about 20 minutes, while the steam surrounds me and helps the herbs penetrate into my body.
After showering, I’m taken into a private dining room, and served one of the most beautiful meals that’s ever been placed before me. The vegetables, rice, and fruits have been intricately shaped into flowers, and arranged on separate plates that make the whole meal look like a work of art.
When I’m through, I relax for some time in a room filled with paintings and sculptures collected by Peisger from around the world, then begin my second treatment, a Pada-Abhyanga, or foot massage. Working on the energy points found there, my therapist, Mr. Udawetiarachchi, uses varying pressure to help stimulate each of my organs. It’s heavenly, and my happy feet barely touch the ground as I head back to the relaxation area to sip tea and chat with Peisger about her quest to bring Ayurveda into Baden-Baden’s wellness mix.
“As your body regains balance, so does your mind”, she tells me. “I believe we can change the world by adding to and multiplying the amount of joy within it. It all comes down to shifting the energy. Ayurveda can help with this.”
I thank her, quite sincerely, for contributing to my own joy, and head back out into the sunshine.
After breakfast and a walk, I locate the Medico and Vital Center and Salina Salt Grave, a salt grotto where several physicians are combining the latest technology for physical therapy with salt inhalation sessions. While the physiotherapy center has absolutely everything imaginable in the way of sports therapy for enhancing the performance of elite athletes, and aiding in recovery from sports-related injuries, the grotto is a magical space of salt crystals brought over from the Dead Sea and the Himalayas. Lounge chairs are set into the thick sand floor of the space, and I find an empty one and lie gazing at the salt crystal ceiling.
Halil Senpinar, the center’s director, tells me that studies have shown that the inhalation of dry salt, as in the grotto setting, has proven to be more effective than inhaling salty water. The body’s initial reaction to breathing in the dry salt air, he tells me, is osmotic in nature – a process that allows the tiny salt particles to penetrate deeply into cells, where it acts favorably on the immune system. Those suffering from bronchial and respiratory complaints, says Senpinar, particularly benefit. A symposium addressing respiratory illness was held here last year, where leading researchers presented their study evidence pointing to the positive use of salt in dealing with respiratory complaints.
It’s also quite relaxing just to be in this magical space, and I do seem to breathing more deeply and efficiently when I finally leave to head back to my hotel. During my stay, I’ve had a stunning room at the magnificent Dorint Maison Messmer hotel, but I’ve yet to try out the Royal Spa housed here. The space is impressive, with a wall-to-wall pool that shimmers beneath a glassed ceiling, and I swim and float for a half hour before my treatment. I’ve booked a Goat’s Butter Cream Massage, and my therapist slathers me with a thick layer of a buttery, silky concoction that she assures me does, indeed, contain goat’s milk butter. It smells sweet, and is deeply hydrating. I’m massaged from head to toe, with extra time spent (at my request) on my hands and shoulders. I leave feeling ultra supple and smooth, and the packing that lies ahead of me has completely lost the power to send me into my usual frantic pre-travel state.
Date with a Train
The day of leaving arrives, and before breakfast, I head down the street to the spa park for a walk and some meditation. Past the imposing Kur Haus, where Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously lost his last pocketful of rubles, and along the footpath that borders the stream, I find a quiet spot and catch my breath.
On my way to the train station a short time later, I already miss the narrow streets and parks filled with dogs and flowers. I’m struck, as I always am when I’m fortunate enough to find myself in this particular corner of the world, by the positive energy that permeates this town. For me, Baden-Baden is a shelter and healing haven, a place of quiet refuge. In German, such a place is called ‘der Zufluchtsort’, but I’ll keep it simple and say that in terms of destinations, this one’s close to perfect.
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