"Why have you come to Baden-Baden?” Helmut Berger asks Glenda Jackson in the 1975 film The Romantic Englishwoman. “I came for the waters,” she replies.
Baden-Baden, that bucolic spa town at the foothills of the Black Forest, in Southwest Germany, a train stop between Frankfurt and Basel, Switzerland, has drawn people since Roman times for the healing powers of its 17,000-year-old Friedrichsbad thermal spring. For centuries it has been known as the “summer capital of Europe.” It’s where Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler, in 1863, after losing all his money at the casino, which, 100 years later, Marlene Dietrich called “the most beautiful in the world.” It’s where Victoria Beckham, Richard Branson, and Bono have been spotted. And it’s where Bill Clinton remarked, “Baden-Baden is so nice they had to name it twice.”
In fact, Baden is German for “bathing” or “baths,” and Baden-Baden is sometimes loosely translated as “taking the cure.” So it’s only fitting that Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, considered one of the pioneers of the spa movement in Europe, with more than 30 years of medical expertise, should turn one of the Belle Époque buildings on its property, Villa Stéphanie, into a beacon of personal health and well-being. Erected in 1890 as a residence for royalty, it was a private clinic from the late ’70s until 2000, when the Oetker family, who has owned the grand hotel since 1923 and introduced a spa in 1983, decided to close the clinic and set up a medical spa connected to the hotel.
“At this time, there was also a change in people’s attitude toward health,” says Bärbel Göhner, Brenners’s head of communications. “The focus was very much on prevention, and we had the traditional concept of ‘the cure.’” According to Göhner, the resort takes a proactive health-management approach: What can I do for me? What can I do to age better? Pair that with the property’s location along the town’s famous Lichtentaler Allee—with its long promenade surrounded by a lush park that does not allow cars, only horse carriages—and you feel like you’ve stepped into another dimension, one that combines the serenity of the past with the promise of the future.
That future involves a team of specialized internists at Haus Julius, a medical-care mansion attached to Villa Stéphanie, who work with the spa’s practitioners to create individualized programs for each guest. After checking in to experience the detox program, I learned more about my physical ability and tolerance in one day and two sessions than I had ever had in any other program.
“To see results, you need a minimum of seven days with us,” explained the spa manager, Hans-Peter Veit. “If you do not have the time, you can do a shorter stint that involves coaching on how to cook healthier and develop a workout regimen.” First you meet with a doctor at Haus Julius who consults on cleaning out toxins from the inside with, say, infusions and hydrotherapy. Then you see a therapist at Villa Stéphanie to eliminate exterior toxins through body wraps, for example. The doctor and the spa manager work together to determine your cholesterol levels, body fat, and weight class, and they create a program to put you on track toward a healthier lifestyle.
I learned that a detox was not what I really needed; rather that I should drink 11⁄2 liters of water a day slowly to avoid bloating. And that a piece of fruit before a salty meal helps with digestion, breaks down food quicker, and makes you feel fuller so you eat less. From my sessions with Shiatsu master Pierre Clavreux, whose résumé is longer than this space allows, I learned correct posture; and with kickboxing champion Henri Charlet, mental training to control stress and burnout.
Staying in Villa Stéphanie, with its 12 oversized rooms and three corner suites, as opposed to the 100-room main hotel, lessened any stress even more. I roamed around in a bathrobe and workout wear as if it were my private home, rarely running into other guests. I ate breakfast on my private terrace and lunch by the fireplace in the library, and I disconnected from technology to experience the “digital detox” the spa is most proud of. Press a button on the bedside table and all electronics and WiFi are cut off.
Swimming in the Roman-style pool overlooking the gardens was my only disappointment. Not the facility, mind you, but the water. Baden-Baden’s hot springs supply the town’s thermal spas, but not Brenners’s. The hotel’s location makes it impossible. But the public baths are a short walk away, if you’re daring enough to partake in their no-clothes policy.
Rooms at Villa Stéphanie from $670; Schillerstrasse 4/6; 49/7221-9000; brenners.com.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Villa Stéphanie