Baden Baden: a place to embrace the charms of a German winter

The chestnut trees have deposited their leaves on the River Oos, and the waterside cafes have moved indoors, but the good life goes on at Baden Baden, on the northern edge of the Black Forest.

Winter is no time to avoid the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, whose well-laid hiking trails are turned into rolling cross-country ski lanes when the snow piles up on this triangular tract of fir woodland and open meadows 90 miles long by 25 wide just east of the Rhine. And the frosty air makes Baden Baden's natural hot-springs swimming pools all the more inviting.

You don't have to be an Austrian count or even a Beverly Hills accountant to feel at home in Baden Baden. Walking along the gentle Oos one Sunday afternoon, I counted as many backpacks as ascots. There were coddled dachshunds, too, but those you see everywhere in Germany, even in smart restaurants and cafes, at the feet of their masters.

Dunking oneself in hot water, of course, has been part of the Baden Baden way for almost two millennia. The ornate and massive Friedriksbad stands in a terraced park a few blocks from the river. The occupying Romans started it all, making good use of the 22 thermal springs that rise in the hills above the Oos. Their fascination with hot bathing can be traced by touring the partially restored ruins of the Roman Soldiers Baths that lie beneath the Friedriksbad.

You approach the ruins through an underground parking ramp. The site's young guide, Sophie Weber, is stationed in a little hutch resembling a parking attendant's booth. Before sending me through the stonework maze with a map, she said the Soldiers Baths were begun in AD 75. ''The baths were used until AD 260, '' she said, ''but then the Franks and Alemanni invaded and let them go to ruin. They felt the hot water came from hell and that bathing was wrong.''

Poking through the Soldiers Baths and imagining the Romans making their rounds from hot to cold to steam chambers put me in the mood for a proper dousing. But, alas, I found the Friedriksbad closed for the day (Sunday), so I contented myself with peering in the great windows at the gleaming and decorative tilework.

Hot bathing went out of favor after the Romans, but Baden Baden helped bring it back when the town emerged as a fashionable watering hole in the 19th century. It became the summer capital of Europe, and the Lichtenaler Allee was a leafy promenade for rich and titled visitors. Queen Victoria and Bismarck, Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenie, rode along the riverside allee, and once Edward VII, of Wales, made the ride draped in sheets en route to a ghost party.

Horse-drawn sleighs are today part of the winter scene, and one can live a princely life at Baden Baden's grand hotels: the Brenner's Park, with its gracious colonnaded white balconies; the Europaischer Hof, overhanging the Oos; and the Badischer Hof, in the heart of the Old Town.

There are more modest digs, of course, and inexpensive gasthauser and inns, spotted through the Black Forest only a few miles away. At last glance, the dollar, fetching 2.6 West German marks, was buying more of Baden Baden than it had in ages. (For more winter details, one can start with the German National Tourist Office, 747 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; German Federal Railways is at the same address).

Deeper in the Black Forest, where the cuckoo clocks still ring out and locals favor knickers and knee socks over blazers and ascots, the true German winter is waiting to be embraced. There are hundreds of miles of carefully groomed cross-country (or langlauf) trails and challenging downhill skiing on the slopes of the 1,493-meter Feldberg, the highest peak in the Black Forest. You can simply follow your ski tips into the woods or sign up with a Ski Ohne Gepack (Ski Without Baggage) tour and have your luggage carried by van from one hotel to the next.

Whether you ski from town to town or stay put in one, you will find a fairy-tale quality still alive in Triberg, Hinterzarten, Schonach, Furtwangen, Villingen, Freudenstadt. And there's never a shortage of Black Forest cake and Black Forest ham. Using the Parkhotel Wehrle as a base in Triberg, I was faced with a daily dilemma: whether to take my cake in the hotel lounge, accompanied by the International Herald Tribune, or to cross the street to the Cafe Adler, where the choice of sweets was almost too staggering to confront.

There is more to the Black Forest winter than skiing, bathing, and eating. Most villages have ice-skating rinks, German curling courses, sledding and sleigh paths, and woodland trails swept so free of snow you can take long, bracing hikes. Or you can do nothing more ambitious than stroll along the River Oos, where the good life of Baden Baden goes on and on.

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