WIESBADEN, GERMANY — The colourful banners hanging from the light posts along Wilhelmstrasse snap like bull whips above my head as a brisk wind pushes me along the handsome thoroughfare.
Wiesbaden’s main street has been decorated for yet another festival — one of dozens they hold each year in this imperial spa city that has so much to celebrate.
Wilhelmstrasse is named to honour the annual visits to Wiesbaden by Kaiser Wilhelm I and his son Wilhelm II in the 1800s. They liked to come here in May from Berlin to dip their toes in the thermal waters that still boil to the surface of this former Roman settlement.
Evidence of the kaisers’ visits are everywhere. Grand homes, statue filled parks, mighty churches, a theatre that would not look out of place in Paris or London, and a luxury casino are all reminders that this is a city fit for a king.
There’s little time to admire the architectural wonders surrounding me, though. My guide is waiting on the bowling green in front of the famed Kurhaus Casino, which Wilhelm I had built to resemble a Roman bath house.
Manfred Rose waves at me from the steps of the lovely Kurhaus and enthusiastically welcomes me to the state capital of Hesse, of which Frankfurt is the largest city.
Above: Wiesbaden is a city of grand churches and impressive squares that remind visitors of its regal past.
Dozens of sun worshippers are stretched out on the tightly manicured green that runs from Wilhelmstrasse to the Kurhaus entrance.
“They’re waiting to attend an afternoon performance at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden,” says Rose of the stately theatre located next to the Kurhaus.
“Theatre is still very popular here in Wiesbaden and on average 83 per cent of the seats in the Staatstheater are occupied for every performance.”
The large bowling green has become the city’s main meeting point and is used regularly for concerts.
“Elton John held a concert on our bowling green. Oh, he puts on such an amazing show,” beams Manfred.
The walls and ceilings of the Kurhaus are lavishly decorated and the compact casino is located in what was once the kaiser’s wine salon. Roulette, blackjack, poker tables and 170 slot machines sit under ornate crystal chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling mirrors line the walls.
“This remains one of Europe’s most beautiful gaming rooms,” says the guide, who tells me a Kuwait prince holds the record for a single day win — 1.5 million euros.
“However, he stayed a few more days and gave that and a lot more back to the casino,” laughs Manfred.
The Kurhaus served as U.S. Army headquarters after World War II but my guide quickly dispels the often repeated notion that Wiesbaden was spared major bombing because of America’s post-war plans for the city.
“Twenty per cent of Wiesbaden was destroyed during the war and in the final days we were attacked by 450 Allied bombers,” he tells me. “Thanks to some thick fog, though, the bombers could not see their targets and 80 per cent of the bombs landed in the Rhine (river) instead.”
Above: The Cooking Well is one of 26 thermal springs that still gush to the surface in Wiesbaden.
There are 26 thermal springs still active in Wiesbaden — the city’s name translated roughly means “bathing field."
“Our most famous spring is the Cooking Well,” says Rose of the spring located in the city centre that gushes a steady stream of heated (78C) water to the surface from 2,000m below.
“The water is so hot that we use it to heat some of the government buildings surrounding the well,” says Rose as we head to our next stop, the Neroberg, a wooded mountainous area just outside the city centre which is accessible by a unique train.
“The Neroberg train has been open since 1888 and it operates by water displacement (7,000 litres) and a (452m-long) steel cable. The (245m) climb takes about 3.5 minutes,” says Rose.
When we reach the top we’re greeted by stunning views of Wiesbaden, a sombre war memorial honouring Germany’s WWI and WWII dead, and lush vineyards that cascade down the mountain towards the city. This area, with its hiking trails, restaurants and swimming pools has become a favourite weekend getaway for the 290,000 citizens of what Manfred calls “Germany’s biggest small town.”
Through a clearing, I see three golden onion domes that Manfred identifies as Wiesbaden’s famous Russian Orthodox church, which is known locally as the Greek Chapel because of its interior design.
Left: Neroberg train has been open since 1888. Right: The city's main square Schlossplatz is filled with golden statues.
It’s become one of the most photographed buildings in Germany and the sad love story attached to it draws romantics from around the world.
“The church was built between 1849 and 1855 by Duke Adolph von Nassau as the funerary monument of his wife, Elizabeth, who died while giving birth,” Manfred tells me. “Mother and child were laid to rest in a tomb under the main alter.”
Back in the city centre, Manfred is anxious to show me Marktkirche, the massive neo-Gothic church that casts a giant shadow across Schlossplatz, the city’s impressive main square where the famous Twinkling Star Christmas Market is held. A farmers' market takes over the square each weekend and people drive from near and far to buy fresh produce.
The streets leading off Schlossplatz are filled with charming shops, bakeries, wine bars and traditional German restaurants where sauerkraut and sauerbraten dominate the menus.
A few blocks away is the city’s large rail station, where the kaisers and their noble entourages would arrive each May. The large, impressive park in front of the station was added to wow the Wilhelms and now it has the same effect on modern day travellers.
Biebrich, an impressive suburb of Wiesbaden, is where Manfred lives and where Schloss Küshe, a Versaille Palace lookalike stands majestically reflected in the mighty Rhine.
It’s also the headquarters of Henkel, the world famous producer of Henkel Trocken sekt, Germany’s version of Champagne. Visitors can tour the stately facility that features grand staircases and see the unique bottling process used for the sparkling wine. There’s also a small museum on site that retraces the bubbly nectar’s history.
This is a good place to end my tour of Wiesbaden because now I have a chance to toast this remarkable city and all it has to offer.
Above: The city's many stately homes all come with beautiful gardens.
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.