Like many other leisure pursuits, gaming has undergone a number of changes over the years. Almost invariably, these developments have reflected the very latest social styles and fashions, as well as new ideas. That’s why, especially in modern times, gambling institutions have always been quick to adopt cutting-edge technologies. Where once it was necessary to journey to a large city, or even to another country, to visit a casino site, today’s gamers can now play in their favourite online casino wherever and whenever they choose. But even in this era where you don’t have to leave your sofa to enjoy casino-style games such as poker and blackjack, those early casinos built in the age of opulence still have a special appeal. And the Kurhaus in the Black Forest spa town of Baden Baden is one of the most spectacular examples of these monuments to that bygone age.
A Roman spa
The special attractions of Baden Baden were noted by the Romans who built the first spa bathhouse there. The wooded valley on the margins of the Schwarzwald on south-west Germany was well served with hot-running mineral springs, making it an ideal place for soldiers and eminent Roman citizens to take their ease. Though the Romans eventually left and the site became a ruin, the reputation of Baden Baden’s health-giving springs survived and began to grow.
By the 19th century, Europe’s aristocracy were ready to flock to such spa towns. Those who enjoyed wealth and privilege came not only to enjoy the numerous advantages of a healthy climate, but also to enjoy their extraordinary amount of leisure time in the company of others who were similarly well off – and to be seen doing so. Gaming and concert-going fitted well with such lifestyles, so it’s hardly surprising that these activities also flourished in Baden Baden. In fact, records suggest gambling may have begun there as early as 1748.
By 1824, Friedrich Weinbrenner considered the commercial prospects good enough to build the original Kurhaus. This grand building, which incorporated Corinthian columns and a neo-classical interior replete with chandeliers and gold leaf, also included a casino. However, it was not until France prohibited gambling during the mid-1830s that the casino really became an international hotspot. The French ban encouraged wealthy gamblers to journey to the Baden Baden casino to play unhindered, and with good transport links from Paris, the town’s popularity was assured.
European spa town
With a dozen underground thermal springs delivering 211,000 gallons at 68 degrees Celsius all year round, Baden Baden was soon a premier spa resort for the rich and famous. And the presence of these discerning tourists also prompted the building of landscaped parks, lavish hotels and shops, all with elegant facades reflecting the very best styles of Belle Époque architecture. Whether you wanted to bathe in the waters at the Friedrichsbad, visit the internationally famous opera house, or simply enjoy a pampered stay at the ultra-exclusive Brenners luxury hotel, all your wishes could be fulfilled in Baden Baden.
Though Baden Baden’s original patrons were mostly royalty and other titled gentlefolk, in its heyday the spa hosted a whole series of famous people. The Russians were frequent visitors and author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, himself a regular guest, reputedly based his novel ‘The Gambler’ on his experience of the Baden Baden casino.
Famous musicians also frequently performed in the town and stayed on to enjoy its attractions and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Johannes Brahms, for instance, spent many summers here, and both Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann knew the place well – as did the renowned French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, as well as the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, another darling of the international concert circuit.
Anyone who could afford to do so came to Baden Baden and spent some time at the Kurhaus. Some came to chat politely or read a newspaper, while others made business contacts or attended sparkling carnival balls and gala dinners. In later years, Baden Baden’s appeal spread even more widely to include celebrities, politicians and the nouveau riche from all around the world. Edward VII of England was a regular visitor, as was Germany’s Marlene Dietrich, and high-ranking statesmen such as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle used the town as a meeting place.
Decline and revival
Having originally gained recognition as a result of laws outlawing gaming in neighbouring countries, Baden Baden enjoyed many decades when its Kurhaus was celebrated as the foremost casino in the world. Nevertheless its own casino was forced to close down in 1872, before being allowed to open up again in 1933. Another closure followed in 1944, before a glorious relaunch in 1950 saw the Kurhaus regain its reputation as the ‘most expensive casino in the world’.
Gamblers are still regular visitors to Baden Baden, but its cosmopolitan appeal continues to grow. Tourists love the town, but so too do those who arrange international gatherings of all kinds – including chess tournaments, Olympic committee meetings and NATO summits to name just a few.