When everyone flocks off to the beach, I personally prefer to relax in a historic spa town, ideally with plenty of neoclassical colonnades, romantic parks with the odd Greco-Roman looking temple in the backdrop and a historic “it list” of composers, writers and royalty. After my visit to Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně last summer, I’ve formed an obsession with Central Europe’s historic spa towns, which is why this Easter Holiday I find myself in the town of Baden bei Wien, a Biedermeier spa town just 20 minutes by train from Vienna.
Baden, meaning “bath” in English, has been famed for its thermal sulfuric waters ever
since the Romans, but to look at it today it looks more like a playground for the Viennese elite of the 19th century with classical columns sprouting out of stately buildings like trees, complete with a casino and domed structures inscribed with the word -bad some where in their name.
On first impressions, Baden seems compact and peaceful. Two storey houses line the roads, where the local stadtbahn slinks by on its way back to Wien Oper on its hour long commute. The air feels clean, decontaminated from city life as the breeze comes down from the Vienna Hills surrounding the valley. In the distance, ruined castles pepper the hills to one side, to the other vines in their springtime infancy dot the landscape.
Like Mariánské Lázně, I feel Baden was landscaped for healing, with stretches of
parkland that carry the aroma of pines and botanicals – alas the Rosarium, a park
filled with 30,000 roses won’t come into bloom till June – and architecture that evokes the World of Yesterday described in the novels of Stefan Zweig.
In fact, Zweig spent summers in Baden, describing the blue skies and the summer time strolls through the town when the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination broke, the fuse for World War I ignited as the music cut on the bandstand during the daily concert.
But strolling through the cobbled streets and slipping in and out of the winding paths up the Kurpark, it’s not Zweig who is present but a German composer whose memory lingers in the town. From the Beethoven weg that winds up the Kurpark to collonades of the Beethoven Temple the Beethovenhaus downtown, Baden has Beethoven inscribed in every street and park. The German composer loved the town, and came here 17 times, even composing parts of his epic 9th Symphony while taking the waters in the town.
The small townhouse in the heart of Baden houses a small museum dedicated to the composer, with artifacts and a musical lab to explain how Beethoven composed whilehis hearing deteriorated by using bone conduction, but the main focus is on his stay in Baden. His deteriorating health mean the composer came to the town (only three hours by stagecoach from Vienna those days) to take the water. Baden’s water has been used since the Romans, with sulfuric water that bubbles up at 36C that’s said to have curative properties.
Many of the historic baths have been converted into tourist information centers or wine bars, and a few like the Römertherme, got a modern upgrade with a huge glass roof extending over the Biedermeier era building, and in the summer there there is an art deco lido that opens up along the river banks. Although it seems like Baden’s water culture has faded over the past century, the smell of sulfur permeates through the air besides the Franzenbad Hamam down by the river and the spirit of healing still stretches through the town.
Whether you’re grabbing a coffee in one of the numerous elegant cafés dotted in and around the center or taking a stroll through the Kurpark, Baden is a city made for recovery and relaxation. The park mixes up the feel of a landscape garden, with colonnaded temples to Beethoven and Mozart with spring flowers, yew and chestnut trees hobnobbing with aromatic pines. Sweeping views from the windswept Beethoven temple capture the town with its church spires and art nouveau theaters, quaint houses and vine yards in the distance.
Baden is not a city you come to where you rush to take in a million sites and museums, like nearby Vienna. It’s a refuge where you can easily lose hours in the thermal pools at the Römertherme or exploring the winding paths of the Kurpark. Some even come to gamble at its elegant casino, where I know even my poshest clothes wouldn’t get me past the door. I try to imaging the Rosarium in June when the 30,000 roses are in bloom, but now only the perfume of pines fill the clean air. Baden forces me to relax, to savor the scent of the trees and the blooming flowers, to listen to the birds singing in the trees and feel the water against my skin. Next week is back to the grind, but for now, time stands still.