Baden-Baden: A Classy Splash

Baden Baden spas offer visitors a place to soak away their stresses.
By Rick Steves

Of all the high-class resort towns I've seen, Germany's Baden-Baden is the easiest to enjoy in blue jeans and with a picnic. Located deep in the Black Forest, this resort was the playground of Europe's high-rolling elite 150 years ago. Royalty and aristocracy would come from all corners to gamble in the world's top casino and take the Kur — a sauna, massage, and utter restfulness. Today this town of 55,000 attracts a more middle-class crowd: tourists in search of a lower pulse and Germans enjoying the fruits of their generous health-care system.

Roman-Irish Bath (Friedrichsbad)

The highlight of most Baden-Baden visits is a sober two-hour ritual called the Roman-Irish Bath. The Friedrichsbad bathhouse pampered the rich and famous in its elegant surroundings when it opened 120 years ago. Today this steamy world of marble, brass columns, tropical tiles, herons, lily pads, and graceful nudity welcomes gawky tourists as well as locals to soak in its curative (or at least it feels that way) mineral water.

The dress code is always nude. Men and women use parallel, nearly identical facilities. "Mixed" is still mostly separate, with men and women sharing only the royal pool. Couples will do most of the regimen apart.

Being your average American, I'm not used to nude. But naked, bewildered, and surrounded by beautiful people with no tan lines is a feeling Woody Allen could write a movie about. Sitting in the men's sauna while a lost, naked, and nearly-blind-without-her-glasses female tourist wanders by is just plain funny.

At Friedrichsbad, your admission price gets you up to three hours and the works. For an extra fee, you can get a 10-minute massage. When you enter, simply follow the room numbers from 1 to 15. The routine is written on the walls with the recommended time and description in English.

Take a shower; grab a towel and put on plastic slippers before hitting the warm-air bath for 15 minutes and the hot-air bath for five minutes; shower again; if you paid extra, take the soap-brush massage — rough, slippery, and finished with a good Teutonic spank; play Gumby in the shower; lounge under sunbeams in one of several thermal steam baths; glide like a swan under a divine dome in a royal pool (one of three "mixed" pools); don't skip the cold plunge; dry in warmed towels; and lay cocooned, clean, and thinking prenatal thoughts on a bed for 30 minutes in the mellow, yellow, silent room. You don't appreciate how clean you are after this experience until you put your dirty socks back on. (Bring clean ones.)

On most days, men and women use parallel and nearly identical facilities — but the sexes can mingle in the pool under the grand dome in the center of the complex. Shy bathers should avoid Sundays, Tuesdays, and holidays, when all of the rooms are mixed — including the steam and massage rooms. All you need is money. You'll get a key, locker, and towel. Hair dryers are available.

Caracalla Spa

For more of a modern experience, spend a few hours at the Baths of Caracalla, a huge palace of water, steam, and relaxed people. The baths are an indoor/outdoor wonderland of steamy pools, waterfalls, neck showers, Jacuzzis, hot springs, cold pools, lounge chairs, exercise instructors (extra fee), saunas, a cafeteria, and a bar. After taking a few laps around the fake river, you can join some kinky Germans for water spankings (you may have to wait a few minutes to grab a vacant waterfall). Then join the gang in the central cauldron. The steamy "inhalation" room seems like purgatory's waiting room, with misty minimal visibility, filled with strange, silently aging bodies.

The spiral staircase leads to a naked world of saunas, tanning lights, cold plunges, and sunbathing. There are three eucalyptus-scented saunas of varying temperatures: 80, 90, and 95 degrees. Follow the instructions on the wall. Towels are required, not for modesty but to separate your body from the wood bench. The highlight is the Arctic bucket in the shower room. Pull the chain. Only rarely will you feel so good. And you can do it over and over. Here you need to bring a towel (or pay extra to rent one) and a swimsuit (shorts are OK for men).

Casino, Kurhaus and Beyond

For aristocratic Old World elegance, tuck in your shirt and head to the Grand Casino. Built in the 1850s in wannabe-French style, Marlene Dietrich declared this "the most beautiful casino." Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it's filled with rooms honoring French royalty who never set foot in the place. But many French did. Gambling was illegal in 19th-century France...just over the border. The casino is licensed on the precondition that it pay 92 percent of its earnings in taxes to fund state-sponsored social programs and public works. The amount of revenue it generates to help the state fund social services is a secret, but insiders estimate that it's more than $30 million a year. The casino is the toast of Baden-Baden — or at least its bread and butter. The staff of 150 is paid by tips from happy gamblers.

You can visit the casino on a tour (when it's closed to gamblers, see below), or you can drop by after 14:00 to gamble or just observe. (This is no problem — a third of the visitors only observe.) The place is most interesting in action; you can people-watch under chandeliers. The scene is more subdued than at an American casino; anyone showing emotions is a tourist. Lean against a gilded statue and listen to the graceful reshuffling of personal fortunes. Do some imaginary gambling or buy a few chips at the window near the entry (an ATM is nearby). The casino is open for gambling daily from 14:00 to 2:00 in the morning (small entry fee, reduced entry with Kurkarte discount card from your hotel, no tennis shoes, tie and coat and collared shirt required and can be rented, nice jeans OK, passport absolutely required, under 21 not admitted, no photos, livelier after dinner and liveliest after 22:00, pick up English history and game rules as you enter. Lower rollers and budget travelers can try their luck at the casino's €1 slot machines (Automatenspielen) downstairs (small entry fee, passport required, no dress code).

The casino gives 30-minute German-language tours every morning, some guides speak English, or just pick up the paltry English brochure. Even peasants in T-shirts, shorts, and sandals are welcome on tours.

Drop by the classy Trinkhalle next door to the casino. Its long entrance hall is decorated with nymphs and romantic legends (explained in the book Trinkhalle Baden-Baden: Its Tales and Legends, sold inside). It's now home to the TI, a café, and a ticket agency. Wander its fancy portico, studying the romantic paintings that spa-goers a century ago could easily relate to.

Imagine yourself in top hat and tails as you promenade down the famous Lichtentaler Allee, a pleasant, picnic-perfect, 1.5-mile-long lane. Stroll through a park along the babbling, brick-lined Oosbach River, past old mansions and under hardy oaks and exotic trees, to the historic Lichtentaler Abbey (a Cistercian convent founded in 1245). At the elitist tennis courts, cross the bridge into the free art-nouveau rose garden (Gönneranlage, 100 labeled kinds of roses, great lounge chairs, best in early summer).

You've dipped into Germany's greatest 19th-century mineral spa and ducked into the most romantic of German forests. Hedonism meets Edenism. Enjoy!