Travel Spa Resorts: Where to do as the Romans did

Germany's swankiest spa has been famous since ancient times, but it's still perfect for a relaxing weekend.
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Perhaps I'd just been naive: a "soap and brush massage" sounded relaxing, but as the brutal bristles were applied in ever-firmer circles across my thighs, it was hard not to scream at the masseuse to stop right there.

However, an only limited knowledge of German and the fact that I had volunteered (and paid) for this procedure put me at a distinct disadvantage. In any case, as soon as she started on the soles of my feet I began giggling like a baby.

The baths that gave Baden-Baden its resonant name were founded in the third century BC, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caracalla. The aim was to provide "R&R" for the troops (read: officers) stationed at the Strasbourg garrison.

I had spent the week in the Alsatian capital, entertaining a Russian friend; a therapeutic day-trip across the border to this northern Black Forest resort seemed an ideal end to a busy week of sightseeing and late nights.

Germany's swankiest spa town nestles at the foot of several hills, and is home to at least a dozen mineral springs. It's possible to drink the local waters, but considerably more pleasant to bathe in them. The ruins of the original Roman baths can still be seen on Romerplatz. Next door stands the modern Caracalla spa, built in 1985, which has both indoor and outdoor pools. A two-hour session of saunas and a bombardment of hot and cold jets of water costs DM19 (just over pounds 3).

However, Oksana and I opted for the more traditional Friedrichsbad, curiously known as the Roman-Irish baths. Several options are available, but we hedonistically chose the full, 16-step procedure, plus optional massage - which costs DM48 (pounds 17) for close on four hours.

The whole process is both invigorating and deeply relaxing. Visitors move from one atmospheric marble-tiled room to another, and the 19th-century surroundings add to the feeling of self-indulgence. No swimsuits are worn here and, as bathing is mixed at certain times, it's worth checking in advance if you want to avoid surprises.

There was plenty of time for showers, two saunas (the second considerably hotter than the first), a steamy hammam, a massage, several dips in the warm, still pool and the bubbling jet pool, 10 minutes' swimming in a "normal pool", and a bracing dip in very cold water, before the comfort of a warm towel and a chance to lather ourselves with cream. This may not sound exhausting, but we were then wrapped in blankets for half an hour's rest, and promptly fell asleep. As there's a pounds 2 charge for every extra half-hour, we somehow managed to wake up in time to dress and head out for some sustaining Kaffee und Kuchen just down the road at Cafe Beeg on Gernsbacher Strasse.

The well-to-do people of Baden-Baden have been eating cakes since at least 1789, which was when the town became a haven for French refugees - aristocrats fleeing social unrest in the wake of the revolution. By the 19th century it had become fashionable with nobility and high society from across Europe. Queen Victoria played host to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II here, and Wagner, Bismarck and Brahms were among those who strolled along the Lichtentaler, a landscaped park that stretches for almost two miles south from Goetheplatz.

Like many towns close to an international border, Baden-Baden made its fortune from gambling. Germany's first casino was established here, taking advantage of the British and French prohibitions on gambling to attract the wealthy and foolhardy. Until 1872, when the Prussians banned gambling in their turn, it was an obligatory stop on every self-respecting young aristocrat's Grand Tour. Dostoevsky stayed in the town in 1863, and The Gambler, published in 1866, is packed with his observations on addictive behaviour.

Today, the extravagant red-and-gold-papered gaming-rooms in the magnificent Kurhaus still draw the crowds. Gambling in the casino starts at 2pm (the minimum bet is DM5), but guided tours are available in the morning.

If you're not willing to risk a roll of the dice, the Stadtmuseum on Kuferstrasse (admission DM2) has old roulette wheels and other casino paraphernalia on display. And, along the manicured lawns from the casino, the 19th-century Trinkhalle (drinking-hall) is worth seeing for its 14 frescos, and the tacky souvenir shop inside is redeemed by the fact that you can gulp a glass of thermal water here.

Dostoevsky was merely part of the advance guard for the Russian aristocracy. The Russian church, just south of the centre, was built in 1882 to cater for assorted grand dukes and their entourages, who passed the winters here.

The exterior is simple and elegant, white stone topped with a gleaming onion dome, but we found the interior over-cluttered and lacking in atmosphere.

The attendant asked for the DM1 entry fee, but waved us on when we answered him in Russian, saying that there was no charge for svoie (roughly, "our own") - at which point Oksana left, deploring such ethnic favouritism at a place of worship, and we went for a proletarian meal at the Kurhaus rest- aurant beside the casino, where a salad is no gamble at DM7.50 (pounds 2.50).

Through the tree-lined colonnade of shops, past the fountains of Leopoldplatz, lies the Altstadt. Unlike many German towns, where Alt (old) really means "rebuilt since 1945", this really does appear old: Baden-Baden was one of the towns fortunate enough to escape Allied bombing. The French set up military headquarters here after the war - rather like the Americans in Heidelberg, they understandably chose one of the towns that least showed the effects of war.

The Stiftskirche was built in the seventh century on Roman ruins. Inside, it offered the chance for the quiet contemplation that you couldn't enjoy during a massage.

The nearest airport to Baden Baden is Strasbourg (served from London City by Air France, 0181-742 6600), but you are more likely to find a cheap flight from Stansted to "Frankfurt Hahn" on Ryanair (0541 569 569), which is nowhere near Frankfurt but quite handy for Baden-Baden. Or, you could take advantage of the current British Midland (0345 554 554) deal from Heathrow and regional airports and fly to Frankfurt for pounds 99 return. From there, direct trains run from the airport to Baden-Baden and take two hours.

Travelling by rail is a bit of a slog; although there is an easy connection (10 minutes' walk) from Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est, the connecting train to Baden-Baden takes five hours. The 205 bus runs regularly from the train station to Leopoldplatz: a DM8 (pounds 3) City Karte gives 24 hours of unlimited public transport for two adults and two children under 16. Tourist information is at Augustaplatz 8 (00 49 7221 275200)