The smart and dignified grande dame of German spas, BADEN-BADEN lies cradled in the palm of idyllic and gentle wooded hills, 42km south of Karlsruhe. In the nineteenth century this was the St Tropez of high society and something of this era's privilege lives on in the dusty elegance of its villas, hotels and boutiques and in the manicured gardens where immaculately groomed socialites promenade.
The Baden margraves who built the thermal baths in 1810 around the same springs that once lured Roman bathers – in particular Emperor Caracalla – nearly two millennia earlier would be thrilled. The baths were immensely popular in nineteenth-century Germany, and the margraves' architect Friedrich Weinbrenner designed a Neoclassical spa quarter. Barely thirty years later, dapper Parisian impresario Jacques Bénazet added a casino and catapulted Baden-Baden from spa town to elite playground as an international who's-who flocked to play, promenade and soothe rheumatic joints: Tolstoy, Strauss, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Dostoyevsky, Bismarck, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and the Vanderbilts all journeyed to Europe's glittering summer capital. Mark Twain came too, but had mixed feelings, describing it as "an inane town, filled with sham and petty fraud and snobbery". The town emerged from World War II without a scratch and now effortlessly blends its halcyon days with modern-day pampering, and in the absence of any heavyweight sights it provides a near perfect setting for a recuperative weekend break. Social highlight of the year is the August Iffezheim races, Germany's Ascot, which has been going strong since 1858 and which encompasses two events: the Frühjahrsmeeting over the last week of May; and the grander GrosseWoche in the last week in August, when the country's elite dress to the nines and don flamboyant hats.