The German spa town of Baden-Baden
Come June, the England team - and their lovely ladies - will descend on the sleepy German spa town of Baden-Baden. Rhiannon Batten is one step ahead
Saturday 01 April 2006
Antonio, the hotel driver, is explaining why a helicopter is spilling out a fresh load of men in suits: "All the ladies of Baden-Baden want to meet David Beckham, so we need security."
Increased security isn't the only change at the Schlosshotel Bühlerhöhe since it was announced that it is to host the England football team during the World Cup. As part of the Bühlerhöhe's deal with the Football Association, the interior is being redone in "champagne". Longer beds are being delivered. Sven-Goran Eriksson may not like this part as much, but eventhe manager has been replaced.
This grand old hotel certainly needs a facelift. It was built as a rest home for injured Prussian officers early in the 20th century. More recently it was owned by the technology magnate Max Grundig. The assets are considerable: a Michelin-starred restaurant; a pool with floor-to-ceiling windows; a spa stocked with La Prairie products (anyone for the "manager anti-stress day"?); and a £1,500-a- night presidential suite. Yet, recently, the hotel has started to look old, with tired furnishings.
The Bühlerhöhe's main problem is that it isn't sure what it's meant to be. It has some nice historic details: parquet floors, swirling staircase and ornate fireplaces. But much of the decor looks boringly corporate - neither lavishly period nor excitingly contemporary. Step beyond the few revamped areas and it feels like walking into 1986.
I can pinpoint the date so precisely because 1986 was the year I last visited Baden-Baden, when I was 12 and living in Germany. I haven't been back to Germany since, so the route down memory lane is more sharply navigated than it might have been - though in 1986 this hotel wasn't on the itinerary.
In nearby Baden-Baden I feel like Rip van Winkle. There is the same French Empire-style Kurhaus, dubbed the "the most beautiful casino in the world" by Marlene Dietrich. Any footballer tempted to stake a week's wages on a single number should be warned: Dostoevsky came for a holiday but escaped the casino only when Turgenev gave him the cash for a ticket home.
There, too, is the Trinkhalle, or Pump Hall, with its fairytale murals warning of sirens luring men into dark Black Forest lakes. Ditto the elegant Lichtentaler Allee, a linear park stretching for 2km past grand mansions and the river. Not to mention the Russian Orthodox church with its golden bauble of a roof.
There were other sights reminiscent of the past. Fur-coated women wearing expressions so haughty they could easily out-posh Posh. Sex shops slotted alongside posh kitchenware outfits in otherwise upmarket streets. Elaborate stationery shops, lavish chidren's clothing boutiques and old-fashioned bakeries serving mountains of crunchy, seeded breads.
Not everything has stood still since I last visited, though. The Caracalla spa's outdoor pools and saunas (nudity obligatory) offers great views, although rather my spur-of-the-moment massage there was carried out to the retro sound of the Bee Gees, still staying alive over the airwaves.
The other big change is the Museum Frieder Burda - a contemporary art gallery, owned and paid for by the former publisher whose name it carries. It opened on the Lichtentaler Allee late in 2004.
The choice of location was controversial. "The Lichtentaler Allee is like a holy place," explained spokesman Horst Koppelstatter. "Normally it wouldn't have been possible to build here." Architect Richard Meier designed a space to reflect the surrounding greenery, also offering "a little bit of California in Baden-Baden".
The result is convincing. Slotted in between the park's trees, the museum is surprisingly unobtrusive. Inside, enormous picture windows frame the park beyond. With its slatted roof and wooden floors, the space even feels like a forest glade. The only trouble is, with so many compelling views of the Lichtentaler Allee, it's hard to keep your eyes on the artwork - most of which comes from Burda's own mammoth collection. For artistically-minded football fans, a Chagall retrospective is planned for July.
Lichtentaler Allee's other big attraction this summer will be Brenner's Park-Hotel, just across the river from the museum. With its shiny floors, plumped-up furnishings and newly installed second spa, it looks to be doing better business than the Bühlerhöhe and, possibly due to its proximity to Sophienstrasse's upmarket shops, is where the footballers' wives will be staying in June.
Meanwhile, back at the Bühlerhöhe, the refurbishment continues, with plenty to appeal to the players. The bar is full of atmosphere, the staff are mostly young and willing without being overbearing, and, if romance suddenly strikes, it has a registry office in a tiny turret 850m above sea level and accessed via a stone bridge (steady on though, Wayne and Colleen - Boris Becker and Germany's goalkeeper Oliver Kahn both married there and both are now divorced).
One facet of the hotel that presumably appealed to Eriksson is its impenetrable position: 10km outside town up a vertiginous mountain road. The outcrop of rock it balances on is so high that a spring mist can create a spectacular illusion. When the mist descends, it is like being on an island, with the tips of the surrounding pine trees and the hotel's ship-like terrace the only parts of the landscape to pierce the clouds. The hotel is firmly out of late-night stumbling distance of the casino, and seals off the players from over-eager fans.
One over-eager fan they won't have to worry about is Peter Saur, who works for the tourist office. "I remember 1972, when everyone in southern Germany said it would be their best [tourist] season yet because of the Munich Olympics, but it was the worst," he huffs. "People thought the traffic was going to be bad so they all stayed away. I know where I'll be during the World Cup. In my apartment in the Bavarian Alps, walking in the mountains. You can always catch the football on TV."
The only airline with direct flights from the UK to Baden-Baden is Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com).
The next-closest airports are Strasbourg and Stuttgart, but Frankfurt has a wider range of services and is only 80 minutes by train. Rhiannon Batten flew from Edinburgh to Frankfurt with Lufthansa (0870 837 7747; www.lufthansa.co.uk), return flights from £104. If you plan to follow the England team this summer, Lufthansa is offering a GloBall Airpass, whereby fans can buy flexible flights within Germany for £60 a hop. You can offset the carbon emissions of your flight with Climate Care (01865 207000; www.climatecare.org).
By rail, the trip to Baden-Baden takes just over seven hours from London Waterloo via Brussels and Cologne; contact Deutsche Bahn (0870 243 5363; www.bahn.co.uk).
When the England team are not in residence, double rooms at the Schlosshotel Bühlerhöhe (00 49 722 6550; www.buehlerhoehe.de) start at €260 (£180), room only. Slightly better deals may be available through Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882; www.lhw.com). At the Brenners Park-Hotel (00 49 7221 9000; www.brenners-park.de), doubles start at €356 (£254), with breakfast an extra €23 (£16.50).
German national tourist office: 020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.de. Baden-Baden tourist office: 00 49 7221 275206.
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