Germany is a country of great beauty and culture, and we Brits don’t explore it enough.
So off I went with my husband Hugh to Baden Baden, driving via Epernay, in Northern France (he’ll go anywhere for a glass of champagne).
We loaded the car up with walking gear, golf gear, bathing gear, opera-going gear – stuff for all seasons – and hit the road.
A pretty sort of place: Baden Baden – with the 13th century Stiftskirche at its heart – is hugely picturesque
Epernay must be the only place in the world where you can drink champagne everywhere at any time of the day and night.
We toured the 18km of tunnels that Eugene Mercier, the man who put champagne on the map, opened in 1885. We strolled along the Avenue de Champagne, home to names synonymous with luxury – Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon and Perrier-Jouet – marvelling at what a clever marketing job old Eugene had done.
And we tasted: surely this one was better than that one, apart from the drier one, which was better than the biscuity one, but not as good as…
Then it was time to move on, the car now even fuller, thanks to boxes of bubbly.
An easy 3½-hour drive through the rolling countryside of eastern France brought us to the Rhine. Crossing into Germany without a hitch, we reached Baden Baden in time for tea.
In the 19th century, Baden Baden – so nice they named it twice – was the summer capital of Europe.
The list of visitors reads like a Who’s Who of European history, from royalty (Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm) to writers (Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Mark Twain) to composers (Berlioz, Brahms and Mendelssohn).
They paraded through the Pump Rooms, visited the theatre and took the waters. Twain later proclaimed he’d left his rheumatism in Baden Baden – ‘and Baden Baden was welcome to it’.
Wars and changing habits robbed the town of its allure – but those who knew it still came to find peace and enjoy its dense, green setting on the edge of the Black Forest.
In the mid-Nineties the town had the smart idea of building a big concert hall, the Festspielhaus, to resurrect the cultural glories of the past. So now, once again, Baden Baden has it all.
In a town the size of Clacton-on-Sea, you’ll find thermal baths, a theatre, casino, art gallery, museum, beautiful public gardens, elegant shopping arcades and restaurants.
Yet within minutes you can lose yourself in the countryside, tramping along forest tracks, visiting local vineyards or, in my case, playing Germany’s third-oldest golf course – as beautiful as it is tricky. I swear there’s one hole where you have to hit the ball down a hill, round the corner and through a bunch of trees – all in one shot.
In the middle of these delights stands another landmark: Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa. There are good hotels and there are great hotels. Brenners falls squarely into the latter category.
In the ownership of the same family for 40 years, it is a bastion of good taste. It has refinement without flummery – a place where people come to be comfortable and where friendly, well-trained staff do their utmost to make sure you have everything you want.
Standing smack in the middle of the town, its terrace and gardens lead down to the Lichtentaler Allee (which translates as Valley of Light) where Baden Baden locals like to stroll in the soft summer air through a parkland of copper beeches and oak trees.
In 1975 Frank Sinatra secretly wrote on the back of a painting in his room ‘Wherever you go, Brenners is the best’. It was found years later during a renovation.
The hotel offers it all – good food, an elegant spa and swimming pool, and rooms furnished in the sort of well-bred style that makes you feel cocooned from the world. It’s a difficult place to leave.
But leave it we did – to watch La Traviata, to hear Sir Andras Schiff play Bach and to climb out of the town to the beautiful old ruined castle with its magnificent views over the Rhine valley.
And, of course, we went to the casino – all Belle-Epoque gilt and candelabras.
I gambled on my favourite number, 14 red, and came away with more euros than I went in with as well as quite a buzz.
Dostoyevsky (who wrote his novel The Gambler in Baden Baden) didn’t have my luck and lost his shirt on occasions. Had I stayed in this enchanting town much longer, I could easily have lost mine.
Baden Baden isn’t hip: you’d never call it ‘cutting-edge’. But it has a reassuring air. It gives you a sense of well-being.
As David Hockney, a regular visitor, has remarked: ‘I can go in on my knees and come away dancing.’ ‘Would you come again?’ I asked Hugh as we drove away. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And the route via Epernay is definitely the quickest way to do it.’