A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino
On Monday July the 4th, I woke up in a cozy hotel a few hundred meters away from Lago di Como. Brian (a friend I travelled with) and I had been on the road for about 8 days now and today we had to head back to Freiburg. Around noon, after breakfast and a quick walk along the lake and the historic villas, we left Como. Heading south a week earlier, we crossed the Alps via the St. Gotthard Pass. This time however, it seemed that the weather was bad, we couldn’t see the peaks and it looked like it was snowing up there, so we decided to take the less exciting way – the tunnel (there was partly that and partly the fact that I missed the St. Gotthard exit and drove straight into the tunnel). With a few short stops we reached Freiburg around 5pm. Brian, who slept through most of the ride seemed to be pretty excited to be back. I wasn’t too tired from the road and because the car was only due back the next day, I decided to pay a visit to the Baden-Baden Casino. After a refreshing shower, late lunch/dinner, around 7.30pm I was on my way.
A few things have to be said about Baden-Baden. You may track its history down to ancient Roman times when emperors were coming here to ease their pain and aches. Indeed, to this day the town is known for its baths, springs and spas. But I find it owes its true fame to something else. It was here, in the Baden-Baden casino that Dostoevsky developed a gambling addiction, the result of which, a constant lack of money, made him hire Anna Snitkina, his future wife, in order to write “The Gambler”, completed in just 21 days. In February 1867, he spent over 4 weeks playing roulette and lost everything, including his wife’s wedding ring and even her dresses. Broke, yet convinced that luck is around the corner, Dostoevsky borrowed money from a fellow compatriot and writer – Ivan Turgenev.
Turgenev moved to Baden-Baden in 1863 and spent there over 7 years of his life. Unlike Dostoevsky, it was not the casino that consumed his attention. After hearing Pauline Viardot’s rendition of “The Barber of Seville” in St. Petersburg, the novelist fell passionately in love with the 21 year old French mezzo-soprano. Although she was married he adored her until his last breath. When in 1863 she retired from the scene, her family left France and moved to Baden-Baden. Turgenev followed her, bought a piece of land and built a villa right next to Viardot’s family residence. The relationship between the two households was more than familiar: Turgenev loved and treated Pauline’s children like his own and often spent time at their house. Louis Viardot, Pauline’s husband, and him were close friends who often went hunting together. Turgenev even sold his villa to Louis, who in turn let him live there indefinitely. Today, Turgenev’s villa is a private property and is not open for visitors. In Baden-Baden the uneasy spirit of the Russian novelist for the first time experienced the joys of a family life, yet one, which was not his own. In 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the family Viardot, together with Turgenev, left Baden-Baden to settle first in London and later in Paris.
In June 1857, Leo Tolstoy paid tribute to the Baden-Baden casino and his long-standing passion for the roulette. He wrote in his diary “I play roulette all day long. At first I lost everything, but later that night I recuperated my losses.” The next day he wrote “Played roulette until 6 at night. Lost everything.” In a few days he writes again “Lost everything! How stupid, how disgusting!”, to finally declare “I am surrounded by scoundrels! And the greatest scoundrel of all is me!” Just like Dostoevsky will do in 10 years, Tolstoy borrowed money from Turgenev, and after losing everything he finally left Baden-Baden.
The list of Russian visitors to the town goes on and on. If you’re ever sitting in the famous Lowenbrau brewery on Gernsbacher Straße, the yellow building on your left, today the town hall, used to be hotel “Darmstadt Hoff”, where Nikolay Gogol stayed during his multiple visits to the city from 1836 to 1846. Among these titans of world literature, Baden-Baden was particularly appreciated among senior military officers in Tzarist Russia. Michael Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Miloradovich, Peter von Pahlen and their families visited the town at several occasions. By the mid 19th century, and perhaps to this very day, Russian visitors formed the largest foreign community in Baden-Baden. So welcome were they and their families that the local press wrote of them “No nation can compete with them on courtesy, good taste, elegance and liberal views…” A statement which I can hardly attribute to the contemporary Russian landlords, who in loyalty to this 19th century tradition keep contributing to the German GDP.
And so, I left Freiburg around 7.30pm. By the time I got to Baden-Baden and found parking it was already around 9pm. Before I go any further, let me tell you that I am not a gambler. In fact this was only my thirds visit to a casino, ever. It was not the game that I was drawn to, but the sensation, the excitement of playing in the same rooms, the same games that were once played by some of the greatest minds of history. The décor of the casino is outstanding; except the playing tables, the bar and the restaurant, it almost hasn’t changed since it first opened its doors some 250 years ago. This makes it the oldest casino in Germany and the third oldest in the world. There were 5 large rooms with baroque style furniture, golden chandeliers, marble columns, bright red curtains and carpets. I felt that it was quite similar to, although not that Schick of course, to the interiors of some of the royal residences, like Versailles or Sans-Souci for example.
Prior to this visit, I had attempted playing blackjack at the Grand Hotel Pupp Casino in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. For less than five minutes I lost over 80 Euros. I was so furious that I told myself I would never step in a casino again… apparently by ‘never’ I meant not in the next two months. So this time I decided to buy chips only for 50 Euros and take it slow, enjoy the atmosphere, not so much the game. The great thing about the Baden-Baden casino is that despite the very schick and classy atmosphere, the minimum bet at most tables is only 2 Euros. So you can play a lot longer, without falling too deep into the hole. And so, with the rattling sound of the 25 2-Euro chips in my pocket, I began to slowly walk around, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the various types of visitors that night. There was the old lady playing her pension away, the addicted gamblers, leaning directly over the roulette wheel, the drunken Russian millionaire (of whom I will speak later), his cheating wife, the group of young guys, standing there, all dressed up in their prom suits, the old German and French aristocratic couples, gambling the inherited money of their dynasty. And there I stood among all those people, half Russian, half Bulgarian, born and raised in Sofia, immigrated to Montreal, living in Freiburg, standing there to commemorate, to pay tribute to my Russian roots.