A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino
Part I

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.

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino: Part II

The period between October 2011 and August 2012 I spent living and studying in Freiburg, Germany. Upon my return to Montreal, my home as well as my hosting university, asked that I submit an exchange report. Below, I tried to outline some basic information that I thought could be of use to others thinking of doing an exchange in Freiburg or elsewhere.

Freiburg im Breisgau is located in Baden-Wurttemberg in the extreme south-west of Germany, 20km from the French border and a little over 50km from the Swiss. The town of 230 000 people, of which 30 000 are students, lies in the heart of the Black Forest and combined with its strategic geographic location enjoys a somewhat elite status among other German cities.

The time I spent in Freiburg is amongst the greatest experiences in my life. For the past ten months I was able to meet many new people, visit new places and experience firsthand a different way of life. Among those personal impressions and observations, below I tried listing some that might be of a more universal character and useful to a broader audience.

Housing

I arrived in Freiburg on the 27th of September. Since my room at the student residence was reserved only from the 1st of October I had to find my own accommodation for the first three nights. I found a conveniently located apartment on wimdu.com. For an even cheaper alternative there is the “Black Forest Hostel”.

I lived in the largest students’ residence in Freiburg – Studenten-Siedlung or “Stusie” with over 1600 students. It is located right next to “Seepark” – a large park with a lake and some sports facilities and 7 minutes away with the tram from the city center.

My flat was set up in a way in which I shared 2 bathrooms, 2 toilets and a kitchen with 7 other people. With the exception of one, all of my roommates were German and all very nice.

My room was reserved well in advance by the international office. There is a great shortage of residence options for students in Freiburg and although they are in the process of building several new buildings, I would strongly recommend that you go with the residence offered by the international office. At the time of signing the contract you are required to pay a security deposit of 400 Euros which is to be returned at the end of your contract. One thing you should be aware of is that their contracts always run for either 6 or 12 month period. If you decide to leave early, you are responsible for subletting your room; otherwise the rent will be paid from your deposit.

Registration & Courses

First thing I did when I got to Freiburg was to register with the local authorities and get a residence permit from the “Bürgeramt” located on Basler Str. 2. Once I had my residence permit I was able to register at the university. At the time of registration you are not required to know the classes you want to take. After registering and paying the necessary fees of 65 Euros per semester, I received my green “Student booklet” and later by post my student ID card. Once I had been registered at the university and had some sort of proof (i.e. the student booklet) I was able to purchase my semester ticket for the public transport.

Registration for classes at the University of Freiburg is a little different than the one we have in Canada. For example, most of the courses, with the exception of intro and core courses, are only taught once instead of every semester. Hence at the time of my preliminary selection I was looking at courses most of which were not offered by the time I got to Freiburg. Since there were only a few English courses in my field taught at the university, it was crucial for me to make sure that I get registered on time. Therefore as soon as the new course catalogue was out I got in touch with the professors whose classes I wanted to take. Most professors tend to register their students the first day of classes, yet for some classes you are required to register online.

Some faculties at the University of Freiburg use the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). In Germany, the number of ECTS points that an exchange student acquires is determined by the amount of work he or she does throughout the semester as well as by the level of the course. This is particularly useful for international students as you can request to do extra work in order to get extra credits. Most seminars require mandatory attendance (you cannot miss more than 2 seminars per semester) and regular participation, an oral presentation of about 15-20min, and a final exam and/or a research paper depending on the amount of credits you need. Keep in mind that increasing the number of credits the workload gets challenging, and in my case for example, in addition to the basic requirements I had to write a 10 000 word final paper.

There are two semesters in Germany: winter semester (end of October – end of March) and summer semester (end of April – end of July), the months of March, September and October are usually used for writing term papers and final exams. There is usually a two-week break around Christmas and New Year.

I would highly recommend that you arrive a little earlier in Freiburg so you can attend an intensive German language course offered in August and September, one thing I definitely regret not knowing about. Some of the international students I met, and all CYF (Canadian Year in Freiburg) and AYF (American Year in Freiburg) students had attended that class and were later able to enroll in lectures taught entirely in German and have a much larger variety of courses they could take. Otherwise you will have to be struggling and compromising in order to find classes that you can take in English. In case you decide to take the intensive German course it costs 600 Euros unless you are part of the CYF or AYF programs.

Miscellaneous

Although Freiburg is a city of fairly high standard, the cost of living is very reasonable. Germany is known for its high quality education, and as of January 2012 the federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg has almost entirely waved university tuition. Below I am listing some of my expenses while living in Freiburg.

– Rent for a room at a student dormitory: 256 Euros (includes a furnished room, hot water, electricity, basic cable if you find yourself a TV, stationary telephone that can receive incoming calls);

– Internet: 26 Euros/month (the quality is mediocre at best);

– Cell phone: you can get a prepaid SIM card from blau.de and talk for 9 cents/minute; for the full 10 months I spent not more than 60 Euros on my cell phone.

– Groceries in Germany are very cheap. I managed to eat well for under 100 Euros a month. In addition as a student I had access to the university cafeteria where I could get a full-course meal for 2 Euros.

– My semester ticket (good for 6 months) costs 70 Euros and is good not only in the city of Freiburg but in the whole RVF network (includes a variety of regional trains that you can ride to get to different places in the Black Forest).

– Most of my classes did not require me purchasing any books. Almost all of the material was available for download online.

– Tuition fees were 65 Euros per semester.

– I joined a gym not far from where I lived for 23 Euros/month. Another alternative is the university gym which costs about 50 Euros for the entire semester. It is however quite far from the city center and its opening hours are rather limiting.

One of the main advantages of Freiburg is its location. I could see France out of my window and Switzerland was only a little over 50km away. There are many ways to travel in Germany. You can use mitfahrgelegenheit.de which is something like carpooling and it is quite popular amongst students. There are various promotions and tickets with the Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) such as for example the “Baden-Wurttemberg Ticket” – a 29 Euro ticket good for the entire “Regio” network in the federal province of B.W. for a period of 24 hours for a maximum of 5 people.

A great experience is driving in Germany. The famous autobahn is free (unlike France, Italy or Switzerland, where road tolls are a significant expense) overall well maintained and of course without any speed limits. I was a regular customer of Europcar, where you can get some great cars at a very good price if you book early.

Other tips

– Getting to Freiburg in the beginning of August or September is a good idea: you’ll have time to do an intensive German language course and travel.

– Buy travel checks and deposit them once you open your account. This will be cheaper than an international wire transfer.

– Check your insurance policy before you leave. As long as you are a full time Concordia student and a CSU member you get insured (unless you opt-out) for a little over 200 dollars a year. This is much cheaper than purchasing the mandatory insurance in Germany with the AOK which costs over 70 Euros a month. Make sure to get a document from your insurer so you can prove the AOK that you have your own policy.

– If you have a lot of luggage, fly with Iceland Air. Their luggage allowance is 2 bags of 50lbs each + 2 pieces of carry on and their fares are usually cheap.

– Make sure to check for available scholarships and grants on the DAAD website. I was very fortunate to be granted the Baden-Wurttemberg Stipendium, which in my case amounted to 500 Euros. It covered some of my basic and most important expenses. Moreover, the Baden-Wurttemberg Stiftung organized a few events throughout the year for the scholarship holders. Many of them were very informing, entertaining and let you meet other scholarship holders. Not to mention that they tend to cover most of the expenses, such as food and transportation.

– If you want to drive in Germany, you can do so with your Canadian license. You do not need an “international driver’s license” – it is not required, that is simply a product available for purchase.

– If you have a chance, rent a car and drive to Italy, crossing the Swiss Alps via the historical St. Gotthard Pass.

– Play roulette at the world famous Baden-Baden Casino.

– Don’t spend too much time in Freiburg – travel! If you’re there for a year, you’ll have a lot of time to travel!

In conclusion, I would encourage anyone to take advantage of the opportunity to live and study in Germany. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me, I would be happy to help!

Useful links:

Studentenwerk Freiburg
(Student portal for students living and studying in Freiburg)
http://www.studentenwerk.uni-freiburg.de/index.php?id=104

German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)
http://www.daad.de/en/index.html

Deutsche Bahn Website
http://www.bahn.de/i/view/USA/en/index.shtml

“Stusie“ Website
(Information on moving in and out, internet, services etc.)
http://www.studentensiedlung.de/

Baden-Wurttemberg Stiftung (BW Foundation)
(Check for available scholarships)
http://www.bwstiftung.de/en

Ryanair
(For cheap airline tickets within Europe)
http://www.ryanair.com/en

Семестърът ми във Фрайбург свърши във втората половина на Февруари. В следващият месец и половина бях изцяло зает от писането на две работи по политология. Чак към първата седмица на Април най-после се бях освободил и вечерта 07 Април на бързо начертах маршрута на следващото пътуване.

В началото идеята беше да пътувам директно за Берлин и да прекарам там една седмица. След това трябваше да започна да се спускам бавно на юг към Фрайбург, като спирам в различните градове. По стечение на обстоятелствата обаче, се наложи да направя малка промяна в плана. Така се получи обратното – Берлин стана финалната дестинация; тръгвайки от Фрайбург минах през Франкфурт, Кессел, Гьотинген, Гота, Ерфурт, Веймар, Йена, Карлови Вари, Лайпциг, Зеелов и накрая Берлин. Ето някой от основните ми впечатления.

08. 04. Неделя

Фрайбург – Франкфурт

Около 10 сутринта потеглих от Фрайбург към Фракнфурт. Времето беше хубаво, свежо и слънчево. Без да бързам, с няколко спирания по път, към 12.30 вече бях във Франкфурт. Наближавайки града, моментално се набива на очи бизнес центъра със своите небостъргачи. Усещането е малко като в Американски град, само че с немска чистота и подреденост. В самият център, почти в подножието на тези небостъргачи, се намира и квартала на червените фенери на Франкфурт, който се състои от няколко улички – там беше моят хостел (Five Element Hostel). Имайки в предвид квартала, публиката не ме учуди особено; а и постоянното полицейско присъствие като, че ли компенсира за съмнителните физиономии.

Излизайки на площада на старата опера тръгнах на дясно и стигнах на просторния Гьотеплатц, който прераства в площад Росмаркт. Точно тук, „Am Roßmarkt се е намирала къщата на търговеца и колекционер на картини Йохан Гогел, в чието семейство е преподавал Хегел (1797г.).

На буквално 100 метра от Росмаркт се намира и семейната къща-музей Гьоте в която се е родил Йохан Волфганг. Почти изцяло разрушена през 1944, къщата е реставрирана в периода 1947-1951г. Разходка из стаите минава през семейната библиотека, съдържаща множество автентични томове, а също така и бюро, което се счита за оригинала на автора на Фауст. Към къщата-музей принадлежи и галерия, в която се намира бюрото на Хердер, а също така и не безизвестната картина на Х. Фюзели „Кошмарът”.

Разходката ми продължи към старият град – живописният площад Ромерберг, до крайбрежието на Мейн. Пресичакйи пешеходния мост, на южният бряг на реката (Заксенхаузен) се намират множество музеи. Също така се открива и живописна гледка към финансовият център на Франкфурт. В старата част на Заксенхаузен има няколко улички осеяни с ресторанти и барове.

На връщане към хостела ми минах пред сградата на Европейската банка. Площта пред сградата е разкрасена от импровизиран лагер на т.нар. “occupy” движение, разни плакати, лозунги и други средства за изразяване на гражданско недоволсво, сглобени предимно с подръчни материали.

На другия ден към 9 сутринта потеглих за Гьотинген.

09. 04. Понеделник

Франкфурт – Кессел – Гьотинген

Понеделник, 9 Април след Великден се падна почивен ден. Рано сутринта потеглих за Гьотинген. Времето беше мрачно, валя дъжд цял ден. Разстоянието между Франкфурт и Гьотинген е около 230км и тъй като разполагах с достатъчно време, реших да спра в Кассел. Един от малкото интересни факти, които научих за града е, че през 1807 година става столица на Вестфалското кралство начело с най-малкият от братята Бонапарт, Жером.

В Гьотинген пристигнах към обяд. Градчето е известно с университетската си традиция. Така в центъра на града срещу кметството се намира фонтана Gänseliesel изобразяващ момиче с кошница цветя. По традиция студентите защитили докторската си дисертация целуват момичето по бузата.

Вероятно заради мрачното време, дъжда, празните улици и затворените магазини и кафета града ми се стори малко скучен. Въпреки това, пощаден от съюзническите бомбандировки, Гьотинген има излъчване и си заслужава да бъде посетен… но най-добре е това да стане лятото.

10. 04. Вторник

Гьотинген – Гота – Ерфурт – Веймар

От Гьотинген потеглих за Ерфурт. Тъй като разстоянието не беше голямо, а и времето беше слънчево, първата ми спирка в ГДР стана Гота – малко градче, бивша столица на херцогството Саксония-Гота, също така и дом на династията Сакс-Кобург-Гота.

Следващата ми спирка беше Ерфурт. През 1808 година тук се провежда известната Ерфуртска конференция между Наполеон и Александър I. Наполеон отсяда в резиденцията Петербург на хълма над централният площад където се и провежда самата конференция. Там императорът на французите споделя своята критика върху страданията на Вертер с неговият автор, Гьоте. В центъра на града, не далеч от Krämerbrücke се намира Кайзерсаал, в който в двете седмици на Ерфуртската конференция се провеждат множеството представления и балове. Улиците на Ерфурт са привлекателни, а през старата част на града тече река Гера, създаваща романтична атмосфера.

Приблизително по средата между Ерфурт и Веймар, точно след селцето Мьонхенхолцхаузен, от лявата страна на пътя B7 се намира мястото на което Наполеон и Александър се разделят.