It feels like time travel… the strains of violins and the swish of gowns... the voice of the croupier...the sounds of the rakes on green baize, statues of cherubs and vermilion red carpets... This is not a run-of-the mill Las Vegas kind of casino… it teems with history and looks like an European art museum! This was where the Russian writer Dostoevsky frittered away his wife’s jewels gambling...they say that he was so obsessed by the roulette tables that he was incapable of walking away... Some even say that this inspired him to write ‘The Gambler’.
I am at the historic casino in Baden-Baden, Germany, located in a picturesque flower-strewn valley, at the foothills of the Black Forest. Lined with parks, stately mansions of the rich and famous and Roman baths, the town is also a hub of art and culture. It all started in 1838, when Paris banned casinos and made gambling illegal. Tall and elegant Jacques Benazet, the son of a blacksmith, set up an opulent casino in the colonnaded Kurhaus building in Baden Baden, built in 1824, with Corinthian columns and neo-classical interiors. With its ballrooms and salons, it used to be the ‘maison de conversation’ or a social meeting point and a pivot of the musical life of the town, hosting concerts.
Jacques was inspired by the Palace of Versailles and used Parisian craftsmen and theatrical designers; not content with just building the casino he held grand balls, built luxury boutiques and even invited prominent journalists to stay here and write about the town. The casino soon became a rendezvous for the rich and famous of those times. After his death, his son Edouard acquired a racing track, built new gaming halls, introduced tennis, golf and football and made the town the summer meeting place of Europe’s glitterati.
In the long history of the casino it has been closed only a couple of times and has even served as the French Command Headquarters during the war.
Down the ages, the casino has had famous visitors from Aga Khan to Victor Hugo, the famous writer and German American actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich, who famously said ‘the most beautiful casino in the world and I should know, because I've been to them all.’ The building is more than just a casino – it has played host to a range of events from gala dinners, charity events, carnival balls, chess tournaments to Olympic congresses and classical music concerts.
I look at a glass case at the entrance of the casino, that showcases chips and roulette rakes from different eras, even gold and silver chips used on special occasions. With 38 tables and seven games like roulette, blackjack and poker, this is an atmospheric casino. I enter the foyer of the casino called the Austrian Hall, with the portraits of Empress Maria Theresa and her son.
As I continue to the elegant Winter Garden with its white marble, mammoth Chinese porcelain vases, lattice work and a glass cupola letting in daylight, I am entranced by the golden table-a gargantuan double headed roulette table where gold and silver chips used to be used on festive occasions. There are men in black jackets and tie, and svelte women in slinky evening dresses leaning on the table, as a game of American roulette is in progress.
The showstopper for me is the lavish Red Room built in the palatial Versailles style. The red silk damask covered walls, the embellished doors, the bronze gilded chandeliers and the frescoes on the oval ceiling wow me. Our guide tells us how local motifs have been incorporated like the old father portrays the River Rhine and the younger man is the River Oos. The Winter Garden used to be the stage and the Red Room the auditorium... history is never far behind in this casino...none other than Franz Liszt performed here in 1840.
I try my hand at Roulette, the only game that a novice like me really understands, and regret that I do not live in the times of Jacques Benazet, who used to invite feature writers and place gold coins on their bedside every morning so that they could gamble! I take a break from gambling losses in the elegant Salon de Pompadour, named after Louis XV’s mistress who was said to be an ‘experienced gambler’. This intimate room decorated like a boudoir, feels like someone’s drawing room with- a white marble fireplace, paintings showing the four seasons, ornate mirrors and chandeliers,
I am lost in visions of royals and aristocrats and mysterious strangers... a glitzy world of high rollers a la James Bond style... as I walk into the lavish Florentine room, the casino’s most popular gaming room also called the ‘Hall of the thousand candles’. Five large chandeliers, sculptures of nubile women and gilded mirrors set the tone. The ceiling comes alive with a celestial orchestra of cupids and angels framed with the coats of arms of the Baden towns.
I am happy when I hear that 85% of the casino’s takings from gambling are put back into the town’s upkeep, social development and public works of the town. The 350 employees are paid out of the tronc- a fund generated from tips given by generous customers. A casino with a social conscience...that makes me feels better!
Don’t miss this Baden-Baden landmark even if you are not into gambling. They offer guided tours of this historic building, both in the morning and in the afternoon....