Wiesbaden: A paradise of hot springs
The Captial city of Hesse in Germany still boasts of hot springs and shouts out tradition at every corner
Gambling is by no means my thing, yet I feel compelled to enter the Spielbank Wiesbaden to stroll between tables where the high rollers play. Glancing upwards, as I stroll across the carpeted floor, I note that chandeliers hang from the carved wooden ceiling of the elegant casino. Its existence was one of the reasons, along with the city's spas, why members of high society and royalty enjoyed socialising here in Wiesbaden prior to World War One.
They nicknamed the city the 'Nice of the North'. Fyodor Dostoevesky was one of the members of the European elite to spend time in Wiesbaden. The experience of losing a fortune in the German city provided inspiration for his novella The Gambler. The romantic in me likes to see Dostoevsky as a long-term winner; not only did he create a renowned work of literature because of his experience, he also married Anna, the stenographer who took down his words ahead of the book's publication in 1866.
The present Kurhaus, which houses the casino, didn't yet exist when Dostoevesky incurred his losses - Kaiser Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, commissioned the architect Friedrich von Thiersch to design the building, which opened in 1907. Dostoevesky's tale is sufficiently cautionary for me to resist risking the contents of my wallet.
I'm guessing that some of the patrons would have been chauffeured to the door. By contrast, I walked from my hotel, which I reached from Frankfurt Airport using public transport. In just 45 minutes, the S-Bahn, part of an efficient regional rail network, provides a direct connection between the international transport hub and Wiesbaden's railway station.
Clomping across the marble floor beneath the Kurhaus's central cupola, I stride out through the revolving door and down the red carpet that leads between the columns of the Neoclassical fašade. Glancing upwards, I see that 'Aquis Mattiacis' is inscribed beneath the triangular front of the tympanum. The Latin term refers to the 'waters of the Mattiaci', referencing the Germanic tribe who resided in the area when the Romans first arrived.
The therapeutic quality of thermal spa water was recognised by the Romans. The city's name is derived from the bathing ('baden' in German) that took place amid the fields (the 'wiesen'). Even into the 19th century, locals would wash their horses in the warm water of parkland still known as Warmer Damm (meaning 'warm dam') near the Kurhaus.
For 60 years the Duchy of Nassau, of which Wiesbaden was part, was an independent state. It was annexed into Prussia in 1866 after choosing to support the losing side in the Austro-Prussian War. Gambling and upscale bathing became key revenue streams.
As many as 26 hot springs still gush within Wiesbaden's municipal boundary, spouting nearly two million litres of geothermally heated water every day. At the Kochbrunnen, it trickles from four taps under the dome of a pavilion. For my palate, the mineral-rich water tastes way too salty, causing me to wince in obvious disapproval. A few paces away, water dribbles from a mushroom-shaped fountain on which minerals have left a mustard-coloured crust. Centuries ago, the deposits would have been crushed to produce dye to colour hair.
The Kaiser-Friendrich-Therme, Wiesbaden's most famous sauna and bathing complex, dates from 1913 and was partially inspired by the marble-clad rooms of Roman times. In common with many German saunas, it's a textile-free zone. Its rooms are frequented by a mixed clientele of both men and women, except on Tuesdays, which is Ladies' Day. I pop in briefly to view mosaics high on the tiled walls above the arches that lead into the swimming pool.
To learn more about the Wiesbaden's past, I head to the Stadtmusem am Markt (meaning 'city museum at the marketplace'), which occupies former storage cellars on the square where markets still take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The free-to-visit attraction hosts a permanent exhibition called Favourite Pieces encompassing an eclectic array of items, including Bronze Age jewellery, a casket from the Middle Ages plus a dagger forged for a Nazi officer.
Back above ground, I loop around the chateau-like city hall to view the fašade of Hesse's state parliament. Pausing in front of the brick-built Market Church, I view the statue of a medieval gentleman dressed in a doublet and hose. It depicts William of Orange, the man regarded as the father of the Netherlands - he hailed from Nassau, of which Wiesbaden was then an insignificant part. His dramatic tale of rebellion and assassination might well be crafted into a gripping film one day. If it is, a copy will be sent to Wiesbaden prior to release, as the German institution that evaluates movie ratings is centred in the city.
Strolling between pollarded plane trees, I make my way towards the Wiesbaden Museum, on whose steps sits a statue of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The polymath may well have approved of the neatly arranged natural history displays within, including a polar bear standing on its hind legs and glancing to its left, making me think of somebody about to shimmy out onto a dancefloor. After looking at creatures arranged in glass cabinets, I admire the exquisite Art Nouveau furniture and artworks of the Ferdinand Wolfgang Neess collection, which was unveiled on June 28.
When Art Nouveau was at its most fashionable, the Nerobergbahn funicular would have been a fresh addition to the Neroberg, the 245-metre hill whose upper reaches offer commanding views over the city. It started operating in 1888, utilising water to power the downward descent of the upper carriage. I sit down and enjoy the scenery during the three-and-a-half minute journey up the hillside, returning the waves of people in the other carriage as we pass.
Meandering along the footpath that winds between trees on the hilltop, I reach the Russian Orthodox church with golden domes. Adolph, the Duke of Nassau, had the church constructed in memory of Elizabeth, his wife and niece of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. Beyond the borders of that nation, its cemetery has grown into the largest Russian Orthodox place of burial in Europe.
Pausing on the terrace of the Opelbad Restaurant for a coffee, I glance down at the open-air pool that has been here in 1934. Vines grow on the hillside beneath the tiled poolside. Rather than taking the funicular back down the hillside I follow the footpath, pausing at the Monopteros - a circular pavilion - to admire the vantage point over the city. I follow the parkland of the Nerotal, through which a gentle stream flows for much of my way back to the city centre, passing a statue of Otto von Bismarck - the stern-looking Prussian who was nicknamed the Iron Chancellor.
I enjoy the sundown from the terrace of Lumen, a restaurant overlooking the marketplace. Ordering a traditional Wiener schnitzel, I contemplate whether to go sightseeing in nearby Mainz tomorrow or simply spend time unwinding in the sauna. The answer can wait.