June 5, 2003 -- I am floating naked in a 50-foot-diameter pool in a domed rotunda garnished with Fall-of the-Roman-Empire fixin's: a scattering of chaste marble statues, a coffered cupola as high as the pool is wide, bronze acanthus scrolls and marble caryatids apparently ordered by the dozen.
This is the culmination of my 16-station passage through the Friedrichsbad, Germany's Parthenon to bodily wellness. It's been a process both invigor-ating and relaxing--alternating bouts of wet heat and dry, along with a pit stop for a vigorous soap-and-brush rubdown. And now, some three hours out from the locker room, even the presence of the other sex seems natural. Which is something, since all of us are au natural. For the Friedrichsbad is a Nacktbad, or nude spa, and today, like most days here, spa sessions are gemischt, meaning the sexes are mingled from the get-go. All we need is a little Nacktmusik.
An enormous neo-classical building dating from 1873, the Friedrichsbad is the great period centerpiece of Baden-Baden, Germany's premiere spa town. The mineral-laden waters had already earned Baden-Baden the moniker Civitas Aurelia Aquensis during the Roman Empire and, by the 19th century, the city was called "the summer capital of Europe." Like Bath and Saratoga Springs, Baden-Baden has long been a flame for moneyed moths, and like those towns, too, it has also drawn its share of literary lions. Dostoevsky gambled in the casino (and wrote The Gambler about it); Turgenev lived in one of the large-windowed villas. And almost every boldfaced name stayed at Brenner's Park, one of Europe's top grand hotels.
Built in 1873, too, Brenner's stands in a patrician park where ladies in substantial coats walk purse puppies in the morning. (And show up, vintage Hermès bags in hand, for tea in the hotel's lobby-lounge in the afternoon.) Brenner's is comfortably civil rather than fussily formal, more down duvet than satin bedspread. It has hallways wide enough to drive down in a compact car and closets in the corner suites (the top rooms) that could serve as the garage. The hotel pool is 60 feet long and housed in a pavilion that evokes the spa culture of ancient Rome (ochre walls, heated marble benches).
The 14 tiny, single rooms overlooking the entrance tell you all about the clientele then and now: Once reserved for chauffeurs, they are today set aside for nannies. (Plus ça change ) Brenner's certainly charmed a guest you wouldn't expect to fall for such an un-Vegas atmosphere, Frank Sinatra. He used the back of a painting as his comment book: "Wherever you go," he scribbled in pencil, "Brenner's is still the best." And then apparently hung it back on the wall because it was only recently discovered, when the room was redone.
In short, Brenner's Park is like a genteel aunt who can be a little jazzy when she wants to be. The hotel recently jettisoned its medical spa--the German government no longer pays for the Kur anyway--in favor of one more in tune with the times. It's devoted to what might be called world pampering, with treatments drawn from Bali, northern Africa and the Caribbean, and offers a spa suite for those desiring a Friedrichsbad for two. Recognizing its large dining room was passé, the hotel turned it into two distinct restaurants, the sumptuous, red-damasked Park, and the relaxed Winter Garden, a glassed-in pavilion. As general manager Frank Marrenbach says, "Who wants a 'hotel restaurant' anymore?"
We use Brenner's as the base to explore the northern end of the Black Forest, starting with an excursion down the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse, the region's Amalfi Drive, to Freudenstadt. The town has a fetching collection of arcaded 15th- and 16th-century buildings, some of them partially framing the largest market square in Germany (so claims the Web site). In some stretches the Hochstrasse lies at more than 3,000 feet--we actually drive through a cloud or two--and all along it we look down into valleys holding half-timbered, train-set towns.
We go down into one of them, tiny Sasbachwalden, named for a spring flower that I'm told produces a potent schnapps, for lunch at the Michelin one-star Fallert. The dining room is a mix of the provincial (beamed ceilings, schmaltzy landscape paintings) and the cosmopolitan (sleek cherrywood chairs, anodized aluminum lamps). The menu follows suit, split between regional and international dishes--a testament to our global food culture. Though soundly landlocked, the kitchen is very adept at fish cooking, which we prefer over the formidable sounding Schwabian specialties. We have Seezunge (sole) in tarragon sauce and Wolfbarsch (sea bass) on a bed of potatoes pureed to milkshake consistency, both done perfectly, and accompanied by a local wine, the lush, honeyed 2001 Maltedinger Bienenberg Riesling. (By the way, 2001 is the best vintage in Germany since 1990.)
Early the next morning we head south to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, to see its late 13th-century Munster (cathedral), a superb example of French Gothic archi-tecture, and the masterpiece within, a radiant, 11-panel altarpiece by Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), one of the few monumental retables still in its original location. The Munster stands in the center of the old city, a sometimes quirky weave of streets like the Fischerau, a passage bordered by the fast-flowing Gewerbebach. It's perfect for strolling.
We drive back up into the mountains northeast of Freiburg to St. Peter, for lunch at the cozy, one-star Zur Sonne. High on the diningroom wall is a picture of the chef, 35-year-old Hans-Peter Rombach, flanked by old-fashioned portraits of his father and grandfather, who were chefs here, too. Both would doubtless expostulate "Ach Du liebe!" at the Asian-inflected dishes (which are very good) that Rombauer is concocting. The post-prandial drive from St. Peter to St. Märgen, along the spine of steep emerald hills, is even better than the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse. The clouds abruptly clear, the sky turns robin's egg blue, sunlight butters the pastures. Huge barns and Bauernhäuser (traditional wimple-roofed farmhouses) cleave to the valley folds and here and there cloud remnants repose on mountain shoulders like sleep-rumpled blankets.
We are headed south, to Hinterzarten, our base for the last two days. The landscape here is wilder, the villages more picturesque, mainly because they have a larger number of traditional houses, fewer modern riffs on them. Tiny Menzenschwand is particularly attractive. Farther south is St. Blasien, which has been a Benedictine redoubt since the 9th century. The centerpiece of the monastery is an elephantine, gold-domed, neo-classical basilica wildly out of scale with the town. Imagine St. Peter's Basilica plunked down in a small village.
On our last day we head north again, bound for the land that time begot, Triberg, the center of German cuckoo-clock manufacture. On route 33, just west of the Zuckerhof Tunnel, stands the world's largest cuckoo clock. It sounds unbearably touristy and yes, it is a come-on for a cuckoo-clock shop. But the Teutonic earnestness with which this Über Uhr is presented--by a talking mannequin in period garb, no less--dissipates the hokum.
First off, says our mechanical guide, the clock is not just big, but rather an exact copy, in 60:1 scale, of a vintage Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. A run of impressive stats follows. The cuckoo, which calls on the half hour (synchronize your watches), is 13.5 feet long and weighs 330 pounds. The wooden pendulum is 24 feet long and the pinecone weights come to 440 pounds each. And through constant fine-tuning, our guide tells us, "We've now achieved a pendulum swing deviation of two seconds per day." See what 10,000 hours of work gets you?
We buy a cuckoo clock, then hang around to see big bird come out again, so now we're a little pressed for you know what. But we can't leave without visiting the Deutsches Uhrenmusem (German Clock Museum), just down the road in Furtwangen, host each August to the world's largest antique watch fair. The museum has 8,000 objects related to timekeeping, including 2,500 watches and mechanical musical instruments (when you think about it, they do seem related). We pile through the entrance, slightly breathless from rushing, and get a good laugh at the ticket counter. For here, in a building that has more time saved than any place I've ever been, we're told, "You only have a half hour until closing."