Words and Pictures by Donna Dailey
10 November 2014
Imagine a city where there is no industry, where instead of factories there are only gardens, vineyards, theatres and spas. The dukes of Nassau did just that when they made Wiesbaden their capital in 1806. While the rest of the world headed full steam into the industrial age, they banned the smoke and grime of manufacturing in favour of more genteel pursuits: gambling, entertainment and taking the waters. By the end of the century, this German backwater on the bend of the Rhine had become one of Europe’s most elegant spa towns.
The 'bad' in Wiesbaden means 'spa', and its 26 natural thermal springs still flow through the city. In fact, there’s one beneath my hotel, the Radisson Blu, filling the swimming pool to a toasty 86 degrees F (30 C). This smart hotel actually opened as a public bath house in 1486, when it was known as the Schwarzer Bock, or Black Goat, making it the oldest hotel in the city.
In a small park across from the hotel, beneath an elaborate domed folly, the heilwasser (healing water) spews forth from a marble fountain. ‘It’s good for sore throats and rheumatic diseases,’ says my guide Marion, handing me a small plastic cup.
Sulphureous whiffs hit my nostrils as I take a tentative, salty sip. It’s hot as bathwater. While not exactly unpleasant, 'hellwasser' might be a more accurate name for it.
‘I call it sausage water,’ Marion says, ‘like the water left over when you boil frankfurters.’
Suitably fortified, we stroll past the cascading fountains of Bowling Green, an unlikely name bestowed by British spa goers. This stately space, flanked on either side by long colonnades, is a backdrop for open-air concerts by the likes of Rod Stewart and Elton John. At its eastern end stands Wiesbaden’s grandest building, the Kurhaus.
Wiesbaden's Kurhouse and Casino
More than any other structure, this neo-classical pile portrays the city’s glory days during the Belle Époque. Throughout the 19th century, as spa-going became ever more fashionable, Wiesbaden’s visitors grew tenfold. Among them were the writer Goethe and composer Richard Wagner, who wrote his opera The Rhinegold here. By 1900 there were 320 boarding houses in the city. At the request of its most illustrious patron, Kaiser Wilhelm II, this impressive new 'spa house' was built between 1904 and 1907 for 6 million gold marks.
Inside, beneath the great dome, the opulent entrance hall is a soaring space of marble pillars, stained glass, classical statues and mosaics. The two wings house equally lavish concert halls, ballrooms and, since 1949, Wiesbaden’s famous casino, the Spielbank, which once rivalled any in Europe. The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, lost a fortune at its gaming tables, inspiring his short novel The Gambler which he wrote to pay off his debts.
Behind the Kurhaus, we emerge into the lush landscape of the Kurpark, with fig and lemon trees, ponds and towering Lebanon cedars. In the adjacent Warmer Damm Park there are flower beds and gingko trees. The hot springs give the city a warmer climate, and temperate Mediterranean species flourish in its many gardens, so much so that Wiesbaden was called the 'Nice of the North'.
Wiesbaden's Historic City Centre
We walk past the Hessian State Theatre, another neoclassical gem, and into the historic city centre. The parallel with Nice is apparent here too, in its fin de siècle French architecture. Handsome buildings with ornate gables and balconies, shutters, turrets and mansard roofs rise above busy restaurant and cafe tables spilling onto the brick pavements. It’s a place to wander, and linger, admiring the rich legacy of the natural springs.
There are earlier landmarks here too. The Old Town Hall, built in 1610, is the oldest and has a traditional German restaurant, the Ratskellar, in the basement. The Duke of Nassau’s city palace now houses the Hessian State Parliament. Rising above them all is the Market Church (right), with its slender Gothic Revival towers, the tallest building in the city.
On a short bus ride north of the centre, we pass a row of fabulous villas that rival those of the French Riviera. Parts of the city are lined with them. The promise of good health and entertainment drew the European and Russian elite, and during its heyday Wiesbaden had more millionaires than any other city in Germany.
We alight at the foot of the Neroberg, the Black Mountain. A delightful water-driven cable car, the Nerobergbahn, trundles up and down the hillside. While little remains of the old pleasure park at the top, there are nature trails, viewpoints and, peaking above the treetops, the splendid golden cupolas of the Russian Church (below). It was built in the mid-19th century in memory of Duke Adolf’s Russian wife, who died in childbirth.
The Russian Church
Marion has something rather splendid in mind too. She leads us down a hidden path to an iron gate in the boundary wall. Producing an ancient key, she unlocks a magical sight: the Neroberg vineyard. Row upon row of vines tumble down the steep slopes, disappearing into the city below. Planted in 1525, the vineyard is now run by the state and produces quality Riesling, the 'queen of the white wines'.
There’s another surprise in store. Marion unlocks a metal cabinet which holds wine glasses and bottles. We taste a dry Riesling Trocken, and then a sweeter, late-harvest Spätlese.
The wine is delicious, and the views are amazing. From here, the millionaires’ villas look like dolls' houses and the red spires of the Market Church are slivers in the distance.
As I relish a sense of immense well-being, I decide that the dukes got it absolutely right in Wiesbaden. I don’t know about its healing powers, but the Neroberg wine beats the sausage water hands down.
In the Neroberg Vineyard
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