Roulettenburg Revisited

or Baden-Baden on Two Chips a Day

Baden-Baden is the city of torments. It was probably poetically imperative to fully reveal to me the essence of the place. Not by accident was it once populated by Dostoyevsky’s and Turgenev’s characters whose aptitude for suffering was second to none. To begin with, I was late for the nude all-gender bath. The normally fussy Germans don’t make much fuss over nudity and call this arrangement simply “gemischt” or mixed. The line of cars to enter the Friedrichsbad parking garage was long and by the time my turn at the gate came up it was already 5pm.  This would have left exactly 3 hours required by the rules for the full bathing course, before closing at 8. There is no such thing as flexible rules in Germany, and with the implacable precision, I was cut off at the entrance by a uniformed attendant.

Friedrichsbad
Friedrichsbad

Instead of the Romisch-Irische Bad I had to start my tour of the fabled Roulettenburg by enjoying a walk through the municipal underground garage. The full length of the corridor wall was covered with a mural depicting local attractions. Next to the picture of a Russian church was a portrait of Turgenev (definitely) and Dostoyevsky (possibly, although it looked more like Raskolnikov).

Garage art – Turgenev (looking at a Turgenev girl?)
Garage art – Turgenev (looking at a Turgenev girl?)

It was clear that this town valued its Russian heritage. It also became clear to me right then that for the rest of my stay of Baden-Baden I would have to limp: my left ankle got badly twisted during the drive from Strasbourg for no good reason. (Was this an evil charm by the ghost of the wicked Senator d’Anthès whose home base Colmar was in the vicinity?)

I did not know Alexandr Sergeevich made it here too
I did not know Alexandr Sergeevich made it here too

When I ascended to the street level, the first scene opened to my eyes could have been in Prague: cafe Zum Sveik with the familiar profile on the sign, a few restaurants with Czech flags at the entrance, and people sitting under Pilsner umbrellas drinking the eponymous beer.

U Svejka
U Svejka

The very next building after Zum Sveik’s, however, turned out to be Dostojewski-Haus Hotel. It was cream-colored, with beflowered balcony railings, complete with a bronze bust of the stern Fyodor protruding from the wall over the second floor balcony. It was supported by an also bronze open book with the visible title: Der Spieler. Later, in the Casino and in its promotional literature I could not find any references to the “engineer of the Russian soul.” What was good for the city was apparently not so good for the gambling industry. My attempts to ring the doorbell and enter the Dostojewski shrine, even pretending to be looking for a room, were also in vain: nobody answered…

Dostojewski-Haus Hotel
Dostojewski-Haus Hotel

As I limped along to Lichtentaler Allee, the famous promenade where Russian generals used to ride in fashionable carriages, and where desperado characters from The Gambler stalked their femme-fatale tormentresses, I realized that I was truly disabled. I simply could not walk all the way back to my car to get the required jacket and tie. I had brought them with me across the ocean for this very occasion and now I would have to rent the stuff to be admitted into the Kurhaus, i.e., the casino. I felt the pain of my poor-devil predecessors.

Lichtentaler Allee
Lichtentaler Allee

Mark Twain noted that it was quite advantageous to be a Russian prince in Baden-Baden, at least in his time. The locals would fall over each other to be of service to the splendiferous and profligate barbarians. I, on the other hand, was just an American geek without a tie and had to pay 15 marks for the mandatory gambler’s getup. I even had to leave my passport at the door as a security deposit. This being Sunday, the lowest bet limit was raised to 10 marks. I got 2 chips. The first time I tried to put one of them on the betting table, the croupier wouldn’t let me do it: he was still sweeping up mounds of chips from the previous game. I bet one chip on manque (this was the only spot available near the roulette table) and lost. With my remaining chip intact (kept as a souvenir), I returned the jacket and tie, retrieved my passport, and limped out.

The gambling den of Roulettenburg, aka the Kurhaus
The gambling den of Roulettenburg, aka the Kurhaus

Rushing back to the car to beat the descending darkness, with as much rushing as I could muster, I was accosted in the garage by a man looking for urgent help. While he seemed to speak German, I couldn’t quite grasp what he was saying. I tried English, but also in vain. Then in exasperation the man managed to convey that he spoke only Elsassisch, the language of Alsace across the nearby French border. I was helpless to save him.

Russische Kirche
Russische Kirche

On the last leg, or rather wheel of my B-B adventure, I decided to go up the famous Merkur summit, Schlangenberg, according to Dostoyevsky. When I drove to the Bergbahnhof  it was already dusk and the station building was empty. This contradicted the schedule I had picked up at the tourist office. I realized, however, that the ride was on a complete automated self-service. You buy a ticket from the machine, step through the turnstile, enter the cable car, push a button and up you go. Not a single person was around during this, probably the eeriest ride I ever had. At the top, the view was all the way across the Rhine to France. And just to think that the hero of Turgenev’s “Dym” had to climb up and down on foot.

View of the Vogesen (Vosges), in France, from Merkur - Schlangenberg
View of the Vogesen (Vosges), in France, from Merkur – Schlangenberg