11 Nov 2021

Gambling, gossip and golden times

Baden-Baden’s hot thermal springs were already known and popular in Roman times. But especially from the 19th century onwards, the city enjoyed a lively influx of travellers, aristocrats and wealthy citizens and became the “summer capital of Europe. A very prominent group of visitors were wealthy cosmopolitan Russians. You can still follow in their footsteps in the spa town today.

The casino in the Kurhaus

While gambling was banned in France, the 19th century was the dawn of a literally golden age for German cities with large casinos. This was also the case at the Kurhaus in Baden-Baden, then still the Maison de Conversation. This was where everyone who was anyone met, from morning to night. But the casino was not only used for entertainment – or partly to bankrupt unfortunate Russian writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky: it also financed the expansion of the town, the theatre and a richly varied cultural life.  With the introduction of a general ban on gambling in the German Empire, gambling activities came to an abrupt end in 1872, and the city focused more on its spa business. From 1933 to 1944, the casino was the first in Germany to resume operations. The official reopening of the casino in its present form as a casino and cultural venue finally took place in 1950.

Mit dem allgemeinen Verbot des Glückspiels im Deutschen Reich fand das Treiben 1872 ein jähes Ende und die Stadt richtete sich stärker auf den Kurbetrieb aus. Von 1933 bis 1944 nahm das Casino als erste Spielbank in Deutschland den Betrieb wieder auf. Die feierliche Wiedereröffnung der Spielbank in der heutigen Form als Casino und kulturellem Veranstaltungsort fand schließlich 1950 statt.

The Trinkhalle

In the 19th century, the Trinkhalle (pump house) next to the Kurhaus resembled a salon where people strolled together and exchanged the latest gossip. This was supported by the Badeblatt, which not only featured upcoming events and current news, but also detailed lists of names of newly arrived guests from Russia.

Historic hotels

Of course, the illustrious guests had to be accommodated in Baden-Baden in a manner befitting their status. During this time, small hostels were turned into luxury hotels, some of which still welcome guests with thick wallets today. The Atlantic hotel, for example, which was still the Englischer Hof at the time, even had a ball in the Kurhaus especially for its guests. The later Tsar Alexander II and the Tsar’s widow Alexandra Federovna stayed here. Others, such as Lev Tolstoy, stayed at the less expensive Holland hotel. After Tolstoy gambled away all his money on his very first evening in Baden-Baden, even a generous loan from the poet Ivan S. Turgenev could not improve his financial situation.

Russisch-Orthodoxe Kirche

Russian Orthodox Church

A landmark of the city and its large Russian community was built at the end of the 19th century: the Russian Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The church is decorated with numerous frescoes by the Russian “painter prince” Grigory Gagarin and its construction was mainly driven by Grand Duchess Maria Maximilianovna, a granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I. From then on, the Russian community no longer had to celebrate its services in private.

Whether Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev or the Romanovs – anyone who was anyone was to be found in Baden-Baden in the summer in the 19th century. The summer capital of Europe, which is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, still exudes its cosmopolitan charm today.

Photos: Monika Rittershaus