Time does strange things in southwest Germany. Even before Einstein hit on his Theory of Relativity in Ülm, Mark Twain had realized something was up after taking to the waters in the smart spa town of Baden-Baden. “Here at the Friedrichsbad,” he wrote, ”you lose track of time within ten minutes and track of the world within twenty.”
Nearly 2000 years after the Romans tapped curative waters in this corner of the Black Forest, Twain swore that he left his rheumatism in Baden-Baden (literally, the “Baths of Baden”). England physios also considered Friedrichsbad sessions good enough to fast-track the return of injured striker Wayne Rooney for the World Cup in 2006. But regardless of whether a visit to the Roman-Irish mineral baths is for relaxation or rheumatism, as Twain noted, minutes melt into hours once inside. Midway through the full sixteen-stage programme, schedules are mere memories as you float in the circular pool of the Kuppelbad, whose marble walls and columns, creamy caryatids and sculpted cupola make it seem more minor Renaissance cathedral than spa centrepiece. By the final stage, time is meaningless and locations are a blur, as you drift prune-like and dozy between a sequence of mineral water baths, showers, scrubs and saunas of ever decreasing temperatures.
If time warps inside the Friedrichsbad, the spa itself is a throwback to when Baden-Baden was a high rollers’ playground – Kaisers and Tzars flocked here for the summer season, Queen Victoria promenaded parks planted in ball-gown colours, Strauss and Brahms staged gala concerts, and Dostoevsky tried his luck in a Versailles-styled casino. With such esteemed visitors, the town’s steam room suddenly looked rather frumpy. So in 1877, Grand Duke Friedrich I cut the opening ribbons to his spa, the most modern bathing house in Europe but with all the palatial trimmings: hand-painted tiles or arches and colonnades that alluded to the decadence of antiquity.
Be warned: for all its stately appearance, you need to leave your inhibitions at the Friedrichsbad door: bathing is nude and frequently mixed. Which can be just as much of a shock as the penultimate plunge into 18°C waters. Or the realization as you emerge tingling and light-headed that, actually, the five hours you thought you spent inside were only three.