Since the early 19th century, the Russian nobility and intelligentsia have been regular visitors to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. Turgenev, Goncharov and Dostoevsky are among the illustrious predecessors of the modern Russian tourists who still flock to the town.
The strong Russian influence on the cultural life in cosmopolitan Baden-Baden has a long history. This German town’s very close links with Russian tourism (still true today) can probably be traced back to the marriage of Tsar Alexander II with the daughter of the Grand Duke of Baden-Baden. The link with Russia is still growing and can be seen in the increasing number of Russian tourists on the trail of Russian imperial history, as well as in the numerous theatre shows and art exhibitions that continue to arrive from Moscow and St Petersburg. There is also a lively enclave of Slavs that congregates at the Orthodox church in Lichtentaler Straße.
The summer walks along the pathways of the large park that crosses the city and which lead to trails in the surrounding Black Forest; the delightful rituals at the baths and hot springs in every season; the attractions of a cultural life that is divided between theatre performances and outdoor concerts, are the same ones that charmed the aristocracy and the European intelligentsia – many of whom were Russian – in the XIX century. In that period, Baden-Baden was a gilded haven at all times of the year but in the summer it was a “must”. After having wintered on the Côte d’Azur, the summer heat led the beau monde to move to the refreshing sweetness of the German Lande and congregate at the thermal baths that were most in fashion at the time.
In the second half of the XIX century, Ivan Turgenev was the celebrity of Baden-Baden. Both elegant and imposing, with his thick white beard and a beautiful lady on his arm, the author was everywhere to be seen in all the society spots that were de rigeur in the verdant Lichtentaler Allee along the river Oos, at the worldly meetings on the Kaiserallee, near the Kurhaus and at the outdoor performances of small orchestras, in the frescoed porticoes of the Trinkhalle, or amongst the panoramic ruins of Altes Schloss.
All of these places are described in the evocative prose of his book Smoke which begins with the words: “On the 10th of August, 1862, at four o’clock in the afternoon, a great number of people were thronging before the well-known Konversation in Baden-Baden. The weather was lovely; everything around – the green trees, the bright houses of the gay city, and the undulating outline of the mountains – everything was in holiday mood, basking in the rays of the kindly sunshine; …”. Escaping periodically from the Russian Empire, which was critical of his Western ways and the nihilism of his characters, Turgenev chose Baden-Baden – as well as Paris – as his favourite abode and it was here that he found inspiration for his novels. For a long time he lived at the Hotel Europa, which is still one of the luxurious hotels of the city, now called the Steigenberger Europaïscher Hof. It was at this same hotel that the author Ivan Goncharov stayed. Turgenev later officially took up residence in Baden-Baden with his beloved Pauline Viardot Garcia, the singer, along with her husband, in a large villa immersed in greenery. Villa Turgenev, at number 47 Fremersbergstraße, which is now a private residence and cannot be visited, is the destination of a good many disappointed pilgrims who come to pay homage to Turgenev but who must make do with a mere glimpse of the elegant yet sober façade – not dissimilar to Turgenev himself. Today, it is not easy to find the gravestone with the sculpted bust with the features of the great writer, among the many commemorations, along Lichtentaler Allee, but when you come across it, it is like finding an old friend.
Fyodor Dostoevsky spent a tormented summer in Baden-Baden, attracted as he was by the famous casino on the Kaiserallee, which is still there and still a favourite destination of gamblers and visitors, not only for the roulette, but also for the exquisite interiors, designed by a Parisian architect, who modelled it on the large halls of the castles of France. The German spa town of Roulettenburg which acts as the backdrop of Dostoevsky’s novel The Gambler is clearly Baden-Baden. It is also surely no coincidence that one of the most successful set designs for the stage version of The Gambler (adapted by Sergey Prokofiev and directed by the talented Dmitri Tcherniakov) features those claustrophobic interiors that are so like the hotels and restaurants still fashionable today in Baden-Baden.
Consumed by the gambling habit that he recounts in his book, while he was in Baden-Baden Dostoevsky shuttled between the various casinos and his run-down dwellings that he rented with Anna Snitkina. It is said that he even asked Turgenev and Goncharov for loans, but was forced to wait outside their fashionable hotel as the concierge, seeing him looking so poor and down at heel, would not let him into the hotel. After he had lost everything at the tables, Dostoevsky and his young wife, quickly left Baden-Baden with a reduced entourage. The Russian writer Leonid Cypkin brought this unhappy episode to life in his book Summer in Baden-Baden but only a sign and a bust of the author mark the house where they stayed in the centre of the old town at number 2 Bäderstraße.
Nowadays, it is the international luxury shopping areas that attract a certain type of Russian tourism, but memories of the past live on in the small but charming Fabergé Museum, 30 Sophienstraße, opened two years ago by a private Russian collector. It is a place of pilgrimage for those who admire the intricate work of the Tsar’s goldsmiths, attracted above all by the idea of seeing the Rothschild Egg, one of the most precious pieces and one of the last eggs to be made out of Karelian birch wood. Also on display are the delightful little animals and bouquets in metal and precious stones and the swan sapphire broach that belonged to the ballerina Anna Pavlova.
It is above all in the life of the theatres where the Russian spirit lives on in Baden-Baden. Apart from the very central theatre in Goetheplatz, built half way through the XIX century in the style of the Opéra in Paris, where Russian plays are frequently performed, there is also the Festspielhaus which plays host to Russia’s best music and ballet. Today, it is one of Germany’s largest theatres with seating for 2,500, its vast stage, incorporating what was once the railway station where the elite tourists used to arrive. The mid-summer festival traditionally sees the Marlinsky Theatre orchestra perform works and concerts under the direction of Valery Gergev. Every December as part of the Christmas celebrations, the Festspielhaus becomes the residence of the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet, which returns each year to perform its classics and with the occasional new work making its European debut. In the evening in the stalls, or in the foyer of the neo-classical old station, the bistro that was once the waiting room, many members of the audience can be heard speaking Russian, while during the day, the dancers can be seen walking through the city, the baths and the cafès, bringing with them a hint of the beauty of Russian art.
Valentina Bonelli is a journalist and dance critic who writes for a variety of titles such as Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue and the magazines Tuttodanza and Dans. She is the author of presentations and essays for Italy’s major theatres and dance festivals. She translated into Italian and edited “le Memorie di Marius Petipa”, Gremese editore 2010.