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On his last trip before the lockdown, our Deputy Editor cut a caper in Germany‘s Black Forest, swinging between drunken debauchery and wholesome healthcare. By Sumeet Keswani
“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd
While travel aphorisms make for great office walls, they do not save lives. A tremendous amount of luck does the job sometimes. When I set off for Germany in the second week of February this year, the novel coronavirus was still very much limited to China, with some clusters of cases just emerging in Europe. All of Germany had merely 16 infections, most of them limited to Bavaria. Nobody could yet see the storm clouds rumbling on the horizon.
When I arrive in the sleepy little town of Baiersbronn, in the state of Baden-Württemberg, the contagious disease hoarding the news headlines appears light-years away. Even though the state shares a border with France, one of the first European countries to be hit, its setting—fortified by the Black Forest—seems detached from any and all human civilisation. A drive from Stuttgart Airport reveals few houses and even fewer people on the streets. Dark shadows lurk between the pines of the Black Forest. An omen of trouble crops up even before I walk through the doors of my accommodation, Hotel Traube Tonbach. A fellow traveller speaks of an inferno that, only a month ago, ravaged its historic culinary wing—a 230-year-old building that housed two iconic restaurants with four Michelin Stars among them. No matter, the rooms of a hotel built in 1789 ought to be charming, I console myself.
We are a group of journalists and bar managers on a ‘Monkey Safari’. Baiersbronn might be devoid of people on its best days but it is home to the gin distillery of Monkey 47. Before we can dip our proverbial toes in the gin-making process, a cooking class at the hotel introduces us to the local recipes of Swabian spaetzle and, unsurprisingly, Black Forest Cake, which is traditionally soaked in sherry in its birthplace (unless it’s being baked for kids). When am I ever going to cook these for myself? I think to myself. Little do I know what April will bring.
The next day, we make the 20-minute drive to the distillery that is dubbed Zum Wilden Affen (‘The Wild Monkey’). The name came from a dusty bottle labelled ‘Max the Monkey —Schwarzwald Dry Gin’, an inadvertent legacy of an India-born British Wing Commander, Montgomery ‘Monty’ Collins, of the Royal Air Force. It was found in his dilapidated country guesthouse. Monty had named the guesthouse and the rudimentary gin he was making after Max, an egret monkey he sponsored in the Berlin Zoo. The bottle also came with a letter that contained details of the plant ingredients Monty had used for his gin in the 1950s. The recipe changed over the years, but the name stuck. The peculiar number in the gin’s nomenclature reflects the number of distinct botanicals that go into its making today. Around one-third of the 47 ingredients are native to the Black Forest region, while others are sourced from all over the world
Our distillery tour is led by the APAC brand manager of Monkey 47, Zachary Connor de Git or ‘Zach’. We get our hands dirty peeling some citrus—huge lemons and grapefruits the size of melons. Funnily, we’re more interested in the slices of skin, since they possess the oils that the spirit needs. The adage, ‘If life gives you lemons…’, clearly needs a rethink.
Then, we are made privy to the secret collection of botanical that are curated in small batches with measured proportions. Each box has an exact formula of dry herbs, roots, spices, and more—I spy juniper (the predominant botanical in any gin), peppers, nutmeg, sloe berries, chamomile, lemongrass, bitter orange, angelica, acacia leaves, spruce tips, bramble leaves, and lavender. The mixture, along with the citrus peels, is poured into blue maceration tubs, each of which contains 60 litres of molasses-based neutral spirit (diluted to 60 per cent alcohol) and a puree of native lingonberries, which precedes the other 46 botanicals in maceration by seven to 10 days. All the ingredients are mixed with the whizz of a groovy electric blender and left to macerate over 36 hours, the time that the spirit needs to extract the desired flavours and aromas from the botanicals.
We even get a taste of the preliminary lingonberry-spirit mash from a cup that’s passed around the group. I dip my finger in the concentrated alcohol eagerly but pause at my lips, considering the contact ratio, calculating the number of folks who have tasted from the same cup. The risk is limited to China, right? Just 16 cases in Germany! Oh well. Monkey see, monkey do! (Later at the hotel bar, the Australian-origin Zach will tell me that he arrived from China just over two weeks ago. And I will have a tiny panic attack.)
The five-step distillation process that comes next is too technical to hold my attention. But the tall copper stills are fascinating to watch as they work in tandem to produce three chronological trickles—the ‘head’, ‘heart’, and ‘tail’ of the alcohol. Poetically, only the heart is useful. The head is toxic, and the tail has unpleasant aromas. The heart is matured for 100 days in stone casks and then diluted to 47 per cent alcohol. Zach assures us this is not due to some superstitious fixation with the number but because the original distillers, brand owner Alexander Stein and Christoph Keller, found it to be the ideal strength.
Beneath the distillation room, an underground cellar hides old batches of Monkey 47 in glass casks. These are not open to public tastings anymore but preserved like ancestral secrets. There are no dragons in this dungeon, just inebriated rogue distillers from time to time, I imagine.
The same night, our dinner takes us up a dark forested hill amid a threatening drizzle, with only flambeaus and the occasional thunderbolt in the sky lighting our eerie route to a literal cabin in the woods. To a foreign eye, we might look like a cult on an initiation ritual. The dinner is wholesome for meat lovers, just about adequate for me. But, as always, there’s no dearth of alcohol. Having had my fill of G&T for the day (probably, the month), I go through a few glasses of wine. Soon, shots of Snaps are passed around. They’re a rite of passage in these parts of the woods, I’m told. So, we are a cult? Just one with minimal inhibitions and cameras slung around our necks.
A trip to the Black Forest region would be incomplete without actually exploring the forest. But we choose a peculiar day. I wake up to a diaphanous veil separating me from the towering pines on the hills—a steady drizzle of tiny snowflakes contriving to blanket the landscape. I tear myself away from the balcony, convinced that the snowfall will continue to enchant through the expansive glass wall of the hotel’s remaining restaurant downstairs. Surprisingly, all the tables near the windows are ‘reserved’, or so I’m told curtly by the wait staff. They ask the “Monkey Group” to “sit over there”—in the darker corners of the restaurant farthest from the view. The novel coronavirus may not have reached Baiersbronn, but a pandemic of discrimination seems to run rampant. My gripe is cemented when most of the ‘reserved’ tables sit empty and forlorn during the meal, devoid of people and placards.
Who needs a window when you can have the world? By the time I’ve swallowed my breakfast and pride, the drizzle has become a whiteout. We huddle into a car and drive into the heart of the Black Forest National Park. The tempestuous weather has closed the visitor centre, but we carry on to Lake Mummelsee, the deepest and biggest of the seven cirque lakes in the Black Forest. Its icy water wears a surreal duvet of mist as the mercury dips past zero. Legend has it that the 17-metre-deep lake is home to a nix (water sprite) and the underwater king of Mummelsee. As I take a stroll on the snow-covered trail that goes around the lake, I’m startled by a mermaid peeking out from beneath the shroud. It takes me a bone-chilling moment to realise it’s only a sculpture! Or, is it?
All around me, towering pine trees sway and rustle with an urgency I cannot comprehend. A local tells me that the wood from Black Forest trees went into the making of the first cuckoo clocks of the world. They can keep time. I make a mental note of buying one from its birthplace. The mermaid gets swallowed by the mist. In the hotel, another night of animalistic rituals awaits.
A Mercedes Benz picks me up from Hotel Traube Tonbach, its plush seat massaging my back as we descend the snowy mountains for verdant valleys. Already I know that my accommodation in Baden-Baden will not leave me bereft of any luxuries, let alone views.
I’m not wrong. As soon as I arrive, Bärbel Göhner, Head of PR & Communications, offers me an extensive tour of the property, Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, and its adjacent house of wellness, Villa Stéphanie. A member of The Leading Hotels of the World, Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa is not just historic in its interiors and guest list, it also overlooks the iconic vehicle-free Lichtentaler Allee, a 3.5-kilometre green avenue that is lined by flowering rhododendrons and azaleas, oaks, tulip trees, chestnut trees, plane-trees, and alders, among other flora. By its side, the svelte River Oos snakes through carpets of crocuses and daffodils, merely a stream in current but enough to fill the air with the proverbial brook’s babble.
The hotel’s strong focus on wellness is not misplaced. The region is famous for its 12 thermal springs bubbling 2,000 metres under the surface and generating nearly 8,00,000 litres of mineral-rich water every day—at temperatures up to 68°C. This abundant reservoir of curative water once lured the Romans to build a bathhouse here, and eventually, a town. Today, two public thermal baths thrive, Caracalla Spa and The Friedrichsbad.
Baden-Baden peaked in the 19th century, becoming the second capital of Europe alongside Paris. What made it so alluring was its casino culture, something the French sorely missed under Napoleon III, who closed Paris’s gambling dens in 1838. In the same year, two Frenchmen opened what was arguably the most beautiful casino in the world, in Baden-Baden’s Kurhaus, a Neoclassical landmark with sculptures, chandeliers, and frescoed ceilings redolent of the gilded glory of Palace of Versailles. It wasn’t just the French; the Russians came, too. And one of them was particularly influential with his prose on the town and its casino, which became the setting for his novel, The Gambler. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words draw hordes of tourists to the tiny town even today. Tempted by the literary connection, and in search of my own memorable tale, I too roll the dice. And just like the Russian writer, a stroke of beginner’s luck pulls me into roulette and makes me lose all my euros.
Back in the hotel, I lament my losses in the balcony, watching a stream of elderly locals schlepping around on the Lichtentaler Allee. Baden-Baden is a retirement town, not just for its thermal waters that are reputed to heal arthritis and rheumatism, but also for its abundance of art, accessible lanes, walking parks, and pleasant weather. In my mind’s remote recesses, an alarm goes off. Aren’t the elderly the most vulnerable to COVID-19? I brush the morbid thought aside and head to Caracalla Spa.
I had been warned in Baiersbronn about German saunas. They don’t follow the usual rules. But in the ﬁrst leg of my trip, hedonism left no time for self-care. Out here in Baden-Baden, however, wellness permeates every brick of the town, every cherry blossom that springs forth ahead of time, as if knowing that later will be too late. While I alternate between cold (18°C) and hot (38°C) thermal pools at the Caracalla, a practice that I was told helps joints and muscles, I mull over my sauna dilemma. Eventually, I give in. I’ll take the plunge. So what if it’s ‘textile-free’!
German saunas allow no swimsuits, and the one at Caracalla Spa occupies a whole ﬂoor. The sauna area is a labyrinth of rooms—from the Spectaculum at 90°C to the Sanitarium at 57°C—with a common lounging space and relaxation rooms. I’m naive enough to think people would be au naturel only within the dark, heated rooms. Oh boy, am I wrong! As soon as I enter, I ﬁnd myself in a sea of nudity in the well-lit common area—men spread out on cafe chairs sipping on juice, middle-aged women reading on ﬂat beds, 20-something girls sharing my shower space! Any tourists with towels wrapped around their waists, like I, are the awkward exceptions. In the Spectaculum, a fully-dressed staffer fans the heated air sporadically, the scalding gust threatening to rip my face off my skull and making me sweat buckets. Around me, perched on wooden benches, are stark-naked people of all shapes and sizes. I’m Zeus, sculpted in marble, sitting on a throne with a towel casually draped over my privates. It takes me a few sauna rooms to let go of that ﬁnal inhibition. Now, I’m Apollo, the unabashed son.
As I leave the sauna area with nary a thread on me, a weighing scale springs a surprise. I seem to have shed a couple of kilograms from when I left India. Maybe it’s the dissonance of two machines, or maybe, it’s the weight of a body image that I have shed. Back in my hotel, I will soak in the bathtub of my opulent room, with a book in hand and champagne resting precariously on the precipice—a luxurious life that will spill over any moment. The clock will tick away in my bag. The cuckoo will wait to strike the hour.
Swimming in public thermal pools and sitting in one’s birthday suit with dozens of others—for the sake of wellness—sounds almost paradoxical today. In a post-coronavirus world, how will such a communal habit adapt? Will people stay two metres apart in Romanesque thermal baths? Will they wear masks— and nothing else—in German saunas? Back within the safe conﬁnes of my home in India, seeing Germany’s tally of cases rise from two digits to six digits within two months has been a wake-up call. (It helps, though, that the country has one of the lowest mortality rates in Europe.) My desire for new experiences is now an itch I cannot scratch. For now, a barrel of monkeys in my home bar takes me back to the Black Forest and its snow-clad pines. For now, this must do.
WALK THE TIGHTROPE IN BADEN-WÜRTTEMBERG
The international airport closest to Baiersbronn is in Stuttgart (90 km). Many airlines like SWISS, Turkish Airlines, and Lufthansa serve the airport from Indian metros. Baden-Baden is about an hour-long drive from Baiersbronn. Alternatively, the Karlsruhe/Baden Baden Airport serves the spa town directly.
Hotel Traube Tonbach is an icon of tradition and luxury in Baiersbronn. It plans to reopen its legendary restaurants, Schwarzwaldstube and Köhlerstube, in a temporaire. Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa is a wellness haven in Baden-Baden with soothing views of the Lichtentaler Allee. A 10-minute stroll on leafy lanes takes you into the centre of town.
The Monkey 47 distillery in Schaberhof conducts tours by appointment only on Saturdays, and limits the group size to 25. As they say, the early monkey gets the banana. Tours start from INR3,298, per person, including a tasting of their Schwarzwald Dry Gin and Sloe Gin, two Monkey Tonics, and a discount voucher redeemable at the distillery shop.
Caracalla Spa and The Friedrichsbad are two sides of the same coin, although the latter is a more traditional (read nudist) Romanesque thermal bath. All German saunas are textile-free. Entry to the Baden-Baden Casino in the Kurhaus requires you to be at least 21 years of age, wear a jacket, and have a valid passport or ID card on you. casino-badenbaden.de The town has myriad museums to cater to every taste. Across the River Oos, steps away from Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, is a series of three—Museum Frieder Burda, Staatliche Kunsthalle, and Kulturhaus LA8.