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Family holidays in Europe: Take in the delights of German spa town Baden-Baden

The dark treetops of the brooding Black Forest are hurtling beneath me and, not for the first time this morning, I think I am going to die.

‘It’s going to be all right, Mum,’ urges my son Felix, nine, who is pinioned between my legs and peering round to see why we are going so slowly. ‘Just take your hands off the brakes.’

Think of Baden-Baden, the splendid spa town in south-west Germany, close to the French border, and a few things may spring to mind. Baths. Boutiques. Even, since it became the unwitting birthplace of the football WAGs who terrorised the town during the 2006 World Cup, Victoria Beckham.

Enchanting: Dusk falls over Baden-Baden, a ‘splendid’ spa town in south-west Germany

So how do I find myself neither pampered nor preening but crammed into a sled at the start of a 1,000-metre bobsleigh track on the side of a mountain, praying for release?

Judging by the queues of families lining up at the Mehliskopf bobsleigh, an all-year-round ride that’s a 15-minute drive from Baden-Baden on the Black Forest High Road, this is a popular way to immerse yourself in the pine-dense landscape. Not, though, if like me you have a midlife phobia of speed.

The children are tickled to bits by my terror. ‘Suitable for all ages, it says,’ offers daughter Evie, 14, as I am unstrapped, shaken and swearing, at the end of the track.

Rose, 15, my other daughter, has discovered her inner thrill-seeker and marshals her siblings to join the queue again, minus yours truly scared, who is now nursing the need for an early glass of riesling and a nice sit down on her hotel balcony.  

Still hankering after a holiday? Then head for the evergreen canopies of the magnificent Black Forest and savour a land that is strangely overlooked.

Germany is a realm of fairy tales, of fantastical castles and gingerbread houses; of sleeping beauties and noble knights.

An outdoor pool at the Caracalla Spa, where patrons can 'wallow in the town’s mineral-rich spring water', Fiona Hardcastle reveals

An outdoor pool at the Caracalla Spa, where patrons can ‘wallow in the town’s mineral-rich spring water’, Fiona Hardcastle reveals

Happy visitors Rose, Felix and Evie in Baden-Baden

Happy visitors Rose, Felix and Evie in Baden-Baden 

Had they lived in a later era, the brothers Grimm might have added another motif to their fairy tale compendium: the green-and-white striped canopies of the Brenners Park-Hotel and Spa — the family-owned jewel of Baden-Baden, where the only distress a damsel is likely to encounter is the realisation that without a double set of floor-length drapes encircling her repose, her bedroom back home will always be found wanting.

Few hotel rooms have reduced me to tears — one Travelodge back home did so for entirely different reasons — but faced with the old-school splendour of our sumptuous room overlooking pristine parkland fringed by the quiet waters of the river Oos, all I could do was cry.

Initially startled by my reaction, the lovely Leonie, who had ushered us up from reception, soon looked as though she was on the verge herself. That’s what Brenners does to you. Even the staff never tire of its spell.

Time to get a grip and behave more like the insouciant rich who have been drawn to this opulent spa town for centuries. Our two most famous Victorias (Regina as well as Mrs B) have both paraded their powers here.

No prizes for guessing whose was the more showy — sedate carriage rides along the Lichtentaler Allee, the two-kilometre ribbon of greenery threading along the west bank of the Oos, or a different Hermes handbag brandished from the World Cup WAGs’ bus every day?

Today, the town’s wealth is evident in the Art Nouveau villas dotted across the hillside, a collection of galleries and museums (one dedicated solely to Faberge eggs), a casino whose ornate walls would rival the Vatican’s, elegant open-air restaurants and a string of chic boutiques.

‘Shopping is cheaper than therapy’ read the slogan on one. Possibly wishful thinking when the Gucci espadrilles in the window had a price tag of €490 (£418) — but then again, the well-heeled folk of Baden-Baden do seem blissfully unburdened by angst.

The Lichtentaler Allee, pictured above, is the two-kilometre ribbon of greenery threading along the west bank of the river Oos in Baden-Baden

The Lichtentaler Allee, pictured above, is the two-kilometre ribbon of greenery threading along the west bank of the river Oos in Baden-Baden

Maybe it’s the chocolate. The sight of an entire store devoted to Lindt — Perspex containers twinkling with brightly coloured balls in every shade — had the children primed for pick-n-mix as though prepping for a heist.

‘What a waste,’ said Evie, as I reached for a few trusty red ones. ‘Why would you pick the flavour you can get in Waitrose?’

Why indeed? Meersalz (salted, dark blue) and mandala (almond, purple) had the Google Translate function buzzing as the children, working seamlessly to maximise purchase potential, calculated how many new flavours they could squeeze into each bag.

Pictured above is the entrance to the Friedrichsbad, which Fiona describes as 'Baden-Baden’s baths for the brave'

Pictured above is the entrance to the Friedrichsbad, which Fiona describes as ‘Baden-Baden’s baths for the brave’

Strategic thinking will get you nowhere, however, at Friedrichsbad, Baden-Baden’s baths for the brave, where the only approach to mixed-gender naked bathing is to grin and bare it.

Caracalla Spa (swimming costumes allowed) has a cluster of indoor and outdoor pools in which to wallow in the town’s mineral-rich spring water without losing face in front of your family. Steer clear of the saunas, though, if you don’t like surprises.

We all agreed, though, that there was no better pool than the one at Brenners, an elegant take on the Graeco-Roman style where classical similarities are played out in marble columns and frescoed walls (no chance of a fright in the frigidarium).

But what else would you expect from a hotel that installed bulletproof glass in the windows of its private villa for VIPs, or built a fence to protect Mrs Beckham’s modesty when sunbathing?

Our final night of the high life and a dinner to die for in its buzzing flagship restaurant, Fritz & Felix. My own Felix, sporting a newly acquired Bavarian hat, is greeted like a wunderkind when he orders his favourite tipple: ‘Apfelsaft, bitte.’

Skip the uncertainties of the Med this autumn. Take a breath of Black Forest air and let the enchantment begin.


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