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Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2000

BADEN BEI WIEN

Hot springs by the Vienna Woods


By JOHN FITZGERALD

BADEN, Austria -- More than most European capitals, Vienna, which bears a rich legacy as the one-time heart of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, has enough monuments and museums (not to mention restaurants and coffee houses) to keep you hopping from morning until night.

The Hapsburg emperors and their court made Baden bei Wien a showplace. Theatricals were held in the Sommer Arena.

But as I discovered recently during a weeklong, whistle-stop trip of Austria, there comes a time when sanity and self-preservation require easing up on the reins. Only 25 km from Vienna's rush and jumble, Baden bei Wien, the 19th-century spa town once frequented by Hapsburg emperors, turned out to be the answer to my prayers.

Compact, lively and as elegant as a minuet, the city of 24,000 inhabitants sits on the eastern edge of the Vienna Woods, less than a half-hour bus or tram ride from the capital. Trams, in fact, run every 15 minutes from the Vienna State Opera to Baden's Josefplatz, and buses are almost as frequent.

Although I knew Baden to have one of Europe's largest casinos, I've never been much of a gambler. I was intrigued by something else: the city's location in the so-called Thermenregion, whose rolling vineyards produce some excellent young wines. I was anxious to sample as many as I could.

Following breakfast at our hotel in Vienna, a friend and I set off one morning under drizzling skies, taking the fast A21 autobahn familiar to Viennese heading out of town for their weekend homes.

By 10 a.m., we were in Baden, and parked our car near the Gruner Markt am Brusattiplatz, an open-air market where Badeners, young and old, were busy choosing their flowers, fruit and vegetables for another day.

After Vienna's predominately gray and brown skyline, the first thing that struck me was Baden's relaxing pastel face. Ocher and magnolia colors grace the grandest and humblest of buildings.

A fire in 1812 destroyed much of the city's central quarter and Baden's wealthy aristocratic patrons took a hand in the reconstruction, hiring the best architects to create public buildings, villas and palaces that, over time, would encompass a variety of styles, from Biedermeier to Neoclassical and Secessionist to Art Nouveau.

The market was only a few steps from the entrance to Baden's pedestrian zone, a series of connecting streets lined with shops and Heuriger (wine taverns) whose owners, being also growers, are entitled to serve and sell their own products along with food. A green bough hanging over the entrance or an illuminated bulb lets thirsty passersby know which ones are open.

The Hauptplatz square is dominated by the hitoric Trinity Column.

We headed toward Baden's Hauptplatz (main square), which is dominated by an ornate 20-meter-high Trinity Column. Like many places in Austria which have one, it was built to give thanks for the ending of a plague. Around the column stand the Neoclassical city hall and the relatively modest Kaiserhaus that the Hapsburg rulers used as their summer residence when the city was in vogue.

Before Emperor Franz Josef II came to the throne in 1848 and eventually chose Bad Ischl as the site for his annual vacation, the Hapsburgs and their retinues had long spent July and August in Baden, enjoying the mild climate, indulging in the local wines and taking the waters.

The therapeutic quality of the area's sulfuric mineral springs was known as far back as the time of the Romans. In 1480 Emperor Frederick III gave Baden a city charter and a coat of arms, the latter depicting, appropriately enough, a nude couple sitting in a tub -- a symbol which caused some consternation among the locals when it was unveiled.

By the 18th century, the Empress Maria Theresa had discovered the healing power of Baden's waters and made it a point to travel down from Vienna regularly with an army of courtiers. The European haute monde followed suit, and by the 19th century, it had become the most fashionable resort in the Hapsburg empire.

Beethoven, often looking disheveled, was a frequent Baden visitor. He wrote parts of his Missa Solemnis in one of his houses, at Rathaussegasse 10, a two-story house that is open to the public. The city was even featured in "Venus in Furs," a tale of sadomasochism and sexual slavery written by an Austrian count.

Baden's glory days, however, dimmed during World War I when its refined ambience was replaced by the martial airs of the Austrian military which used the city as its primary headquarters, a move which was emulated during the 1950s by the Soviet occupying army.

Today, though, thousands of Austrians still descend on Baden for hot spring baths at the huge, Art Deco-style Thermalstandbad that was built to evoke the atmosphere of the spas on the Adriatic, or check themselves into local clinics for a variety of treatments, much as they did in the past.

I'd once gone through the rigors of a three-hour work-out at a spa in Germany's Baden-Baden and had little inclination here to do anything other than look. Instead, after the requisite stop at a coffee house, we walked toward the stately Jubilaumsstadttheater, a 100-year-old theater where plays, musicals and operettas are performed during the fall and winter.

Instead of a classical string quartet serenading pedestrians, as I'd seen on sidewalks in Vienna, I found a band of Peruvian musicians in front of the theater, doing a selection of Andean tunes.

Farther along, we came to St. Stephen's Church, a late Gothic construction with a huge bell tower where Mozart once conducted his Ave Verum. Inside, the church organist was practicing on the baroque organ and the stirring sounds filled the church.

Baden's loveliest spot, though, turned out to be the Kurpark, a tranquil public garden where in 1814 Prince Metternich, then the Austrian chancellor, would often take a break from his work orchestrating the Congress of Vienna, which reshaped the map of Europe following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Lined with period lamps, the park's central promenade runs beside an old-fashioned wooden band shell where, on weekends, local orchestras perform concerts. Nearby, we could see the casino overlooking the city, its fountains and reflecting pools adding luster to its imposing facade.

My chance for imbibing came when we dined at a large open-air wine tavern in the hills above Baden. Huge plates were set across a wooden table and included meat aspic, hefty portions of fried veal and roasted potatoes, sausages and Liptauer, a spread made with cream cheese, paprika and onions to spread on the bread. What with the constant refilling of glasses (I remember trying both the Neuburger and Gruner Veltliner whites and the light, fruity Portugieser red) it was a good couple of hours before we sailed out happily into the night.



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