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Baden Baden: a place to embrace the charms of a German winter

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The chestnut trees have deposited their leaves on the River Oos, and the waterside cafes have moved indoors, but the good life goes on at Baden Baden, on the northern edge of the Black Forest.

Winter is no time to avoid the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, whose well-laid hiking trails are turned into rolling cross-country ski lanes when the snow piles up on this triangular tract of fir woodland and open meadows 90 miles long by 25 wide just east of the Rhine. And the frosty air makes Baden Baden's natural hot-springs swimming pools all the more inviting.

You don't have to be an Austrian count or even a Beverly Hills accountant to feel at home in Baden Baden. Walking along the gentle Oos one Sunday afternoon, I counted as many backpacks as ascots. There were coddled dachshunds, too, but those you see everywhere in Germany, even in smart restaurants and cafes, at the feet of their masters.

Dunking oneself in hot water, of course, has been part of the Baden Baden way for almost two millennia. The ornate and massive Friedriksbad stands in a terraced park a few blocks from the river. The occupying Romans started it all, making good use of the 22 thermal springs that rise in the hills above the Oos. Their fascination with hot bathing can be traced by touring the partially restored ruins of the Roman Soldiers Baths that lie beneath the Friedriksbad.

You approach the ruins through an underground parking ramp. The site's young guide, Sophie Weber, is stationed in a little hutch resembling a parking attendant's booth. Before sending me through the stonework maze with a map, she said the Soldiers Baths were begun in AD 75. ''The baths were used until AD 260, '' she said, ''but then the Franks and Alemanni invaded and let them go to ruin. They felt the hot water came from hell and that bathing was wrong.''

Poking through the Soldiers Baths and imagining the Romans making their rounds from hot to cold to steam chambers put me in the mood for a proper dousing. But, alas, I found the Friedriksbad closed for the day (Sunday), so I contented myself with peering in the great windows at the gleaming and decorative tilework.

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