An imported London taxi has dropped us off at an Italian restaurant with a French name, and we wash down pasta with Spanish wine here in the town of Baden-Baden, Germany, after spending an afternoon at the Irish-Roman baths. This is to be a week of European immersion and a sprint to sample three countries in seven days—a Grand Tour for an era when time is in limited supply.
Unlike the tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a young adult of means would spend a few months or years sowing bushels of wild oats in the great destination cities of Europe before returning to assume the responsibilities of the manor, today, taking a years-long, open-ended trip after university graduation is unthinkable. But we can adapt. My first Grand Tour was a summer sojourn decades ago through 12 European countries that permanently changed how I saw the world and myself. Of course, being a teenage vagabond and sleeping in a Volkswagen camper for nine weeks would leave an impression on anyone.
This recent weeklong journey to Germany, Switzerland, and France represented an efficient means of revisiting some favorite places from that coming-of-age journey. But I would have accommodations considerably more expansive than the cot built into a VW’s pop-up top, and I would not be wearing four layers to keep warm in a sleeping bag at night.
My teenage holiday and this one both began in the Black Forest—the first stop on that youthful expedition was for suitable outfitting. For a fledgling mountaineer, a lederhosen/hiking boots ensemble was the fashion statement I wanted to make, and besides, the leather shorts could be worn all summer without being washed. This was of importance because my luggage consisted of one medium-size duffel bag.
This time, an expandable trunk is being lugged for me as I check into Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa, a most suitable place to recover from a lengthy journey. Brenner’s is a destination itself, with a lengthy menu of spa treatments to satisfy anyone for days. Appropriately, its address is Baden-Baden, which has been fashionable with spa-goers ever since the Romans found hot water bubbling out of the ground here almost 2,000 years ago.
Spa culture in the city hit a peak in the late 1800s, after Otto von Bismarck banned gaming in 1872 and the gamblers who had frequented Baden-Baden’s grand casino departed for Monte Carlo. Five years later, the Friedrichsbad Irish-Roman Bath—a veritable bathing temple—opened to lure back tourists. Not until 1933 did the casino readmit visitors; then it closed again in the final months of World War II. In 1950 the casino reopened yet again, and with a staff of tuxedoed croupiers of the Cary Grant ilk, it thrives today in all its neo-Baroque glory.
A spa treatment at Brenner’s is the logical remedy for lingering jet lag, but if you seek a soothing caress, beware of Othman the “Oriental Body Master” and his Body Torture massage. His toe-snapping, joint-popping limb-stretcher is not for realignment neophytes. Surprisingly, though, no adverse effects from the Body Torture linger the next morning; instead, you feel completely refreshed. However, it is difficult to feel any discomfort in a Brenner’s suite, with its yards of chintz, enormous marble bathroom, and balcony overlooking the Lichtentaler Allee, the lush promenade that stretches almost two miles behind the hotel. Succumbing to another massage is tempting, but perhaps one that sounds more restful, such as Inner Illumination or Maharaja Mystics.
“You want fondue? You must have fondue!” It is close to midnight in Vitznau, Switzerland, and Peter Bally, managing director of the Park Hotel Vitznau, hath spoken. After a lively four-hour game dinner topped off with shots of the hotel’s homemade Williams pear liqueur, conversation has degenerated to the subject of Swiss cheese, and thus the next day’s dinner menu is decided. A quick-thinking staff member disappears to phone the chef at home, warning him that he has been volunteered to fix fondue for some American tourists and that he had better shop for cheese in the morning. We depart for bed, with the admonishment to dress warmly for the fondue dinner the following night; we will be dining outdoors so that the smell of cooked cheese does not permeate the restaurant.
Such is the Swiss precision with which Bally, his wife, Junia, and their staff run this fairy-tale castle nestled on the shore of Lake Lucerne at the base of Mount Rigi. The castle gleams inside and out, and its spotless appearance belies the fact that the hotel celebrated its centennial in 2003.
A bike ride along the lakeshore path from the castle reveals photo opportunities around every curve. In late afternoon, herds of sheep descend from the mountainside along a zigzag fence after a day of grazing. The muffled clinking of animal bells grows louder when another herd runs around a bend in the road ahead, slowing traffic as the trailing shepherd chases along behind. The chance to be surrounded by the spectacular scenery is presented by all of the hotel’s outdoor activities, whether it is a bike ride, water sports, horseback riding, or a boat ride by paddle steamer to Lucerne, the oft-photographed city that traces its roots to 1178. Spanning the River Ruess are Lucerne’s trademark covered wooden bridges, which, for the most part, have survived since the 14th century. The Mill Bridge is noteworthy for its grisly “Dance of Death” montage under the eaves, a macabre history lesson in which notable Swiss milestones are illustrated with skeletons, presaging death for the characters depicted.
It is Saturday, market day in Lucerne, and tempting arrays of foodstuffs are laid out in vendors’ stalls along the riverbank. On my student camping tour we would stop at these markets every Saturday for groceries. Shopping was easy because all our meals were the same: chocolate, cheese and wurst, bread, fruit, and more chocolate. Here, amid the wheels of cheese and overabundance of breads and produce, I have a pang of regret that my lodgings at the castle lack the facilities to rustle up a raclette. But that bit of madness is momentary—this trip celebrates eating, not cooking—and the tasty conclusion to a day outdoors is the evening’s authentic Swiss fondue.
The final morning in Vitznau allows just enough time to ascend Mount Rigi. A cogwheel train (Europe’s first) chugs to the summit, where the peaks of the far-off Eiger and Jungfrau are visible. Mark Twain wrote of climbing the Rigi in A Tramp Abroad, likening the villages at the base to “ant deposits of granulated dirt overshadowed by the huge bulk of a cathedral.” His description proves accurate; on this day a faint clanking of cowbells is audible, but the herd at its source is too far below to be seen.
A morning spent ascending the Swiss Alps is followed by a flight that afternoon to heed the siren call of the French Riviera. To deplane in Nice is to descend into balmy Mediterranean breezes and confront palm trees and bustling, chic travelers who appear as though they stepped out of a Fitzgerald novel. The hotel has sent a driver to meet the new guests, and he whisks us away in his Mercedes. Twenty minutes inland, amid hilly, terraced cypress and olive groves, we pull up to a locked gate, punch in the key code, and enter the realm of Le Château du Domaine St Martin.
Guests arrive under an arbor of jasmine at this sublime estate, built on the ruins of a Templar castle. It is exceedingly difficult to tear yourself away from the property once you have checked in. Visitors can take a helicopter tour or climb the Baou, the craggy peak that dominates the landscape behind the bastides—the hotel’s private hillside villas with terraces that overlook the Côte d’Azur. However, contentment can also be found in a chaise beside the infinity pool. The scent of jasmine and lavender is intoxicating, and the vistas of hillside olive groves and the distant Mediterranean are mesmerizing.
In Provence, thoughts inevitably turn to food. Even on my first visit we splurged on a restaurant meal in Antibes, just a few miles from Château St Martin, where the leg of lamb we thought we were ordering from the French menu turned out to be leg of frog. A reintroduction to Provençal cuisine is dinner in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer at Le Cagnard, which is part of a stone complex that was once the Grimaldi fort. The terrace is our choice, with its panorama of the twinkling lights of Provence. But the view in the dining room is equally riveting when the handpainted coffered ceiling slides open to reveal the stars. The meal is splendid, from a starter of langoustines with sautéed fresh herbs to the toothsome warm berries for dessert.
In between superb meals is a little time to shoehorn in some sight-seeing at the Matisse chapel, the offbeat shrine designed by the artist, and a visit to the medieval walled pedestrian town of St-Paul-de-Vence. We cannot resist an alfresco lunch at the Michelin-starred Hotel Le St. Paul, even knowing that dinner on that final night will be another launch into culinary heaven at Château St Martin.
Throughout the recent continental visit, my ability to take pleasure in the splendor of these locales had been diminished by the niggling feeling that sleeping on 300-thread-count sheets and devouring seven-course meals was a violation of the memory of roaming Europe as a teenager. After all, on that first trip we had not only mixed it up with German gypsies and seen the frightening and sickening squalor of thousands of hippie squatters in Amsterdam, but also watched the Tour de France from a Provence mountaintop and appreciated the kindnesses of the many Europeans we encountered.
After returning home this year, I found a trip diary that recounted our campfire musings the final night of that youthful Grand Tour. We were playing the familiar game of divulging what we would do first upon arriving home. “Make ice cubes. Then watch them melt,” said the one member of our band who was old enough to legally buy alcohol. His girlfriend’s fantasy was about hygiene and laundry: “Unspool soft toilet paper while listening to the washing machine.”
So much for any lingering guilt. I need no more convincing that it is all right to savor this newer, smoother journey.
Lodging and dining recommendations that offer region-specific experiences along with the comforts of palatial châteaus.
Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa
Lodging: Brenner’s has hosted its share of world leaders and is suitably regal, yet friendly and warm. Its 100 rooms include 29 suites decorated with chintz and antiques. Rooms start at €210 ($248); suites start at €580 ($685).
Dining: Brenner’s features three restaurants, all renovated in 2002: Salon Lichtentaler for breakfast, the glass-roofed Wintergarten for lunch and dinner, and the Park Restaurant for evening haute cuisine. Memorable choices include venison medallions with juniper cream sauce, mushrooms, apple gratin, and spaetzle; sautéed pike perch with goose liver on cream sauerkraut (somehow, it works); and nougat parfait with rum cherries or cheese/plum-stuffed ravioli for dessert.
Amenities & activities: The spa, which includes a private suite, offers more than 20 types of massages.
Park Hotel Vitznau
Lodging: Open from April through mid-November, the hotel has 71 rooms and 33 suites decorated in pastels and with mountain or lake views. Rates during the high season range from 570 to 1,750 Swiss francs (approximately $440 to $1,350, based on double occupancy).
Dining: For a regional experience, the Wild Menu features deer carpaccio with truffle oil, pheasant soup, wild boar, sturgeon, and wild duck. Other treats are pheasant breast and Zurich-style veal. Do not miss the Sunday brunch. The gardener makes the hotel’s own brand of kirsch and Williams pear liqueur during the off-season.
Amenities & activities: You can swim in the striking indoor/outdoor pool or Lake Lucerne, hike or bike, or go boating, golfing, or horseback riding. A new beauty and wellness center opened this season.
Le Château du Domaine St Martin
Lodging: The hotel has 32 suites and six bastides, all with sea views. Rates range from €495 to €1,550 (about $585 to $1,830) in the high season.
Dining: At La Commanderie, the château’s Michelin-starred restaurant, savory starters include silken duck foie gras with prune/coffee/cocoa marmalade, and grilled red mullet with spiced caramel sauce. Dinner specialties include roast pigeon with five spices, panfried sole on a skewer, and spit-roast duck with figs.
Amenities & activities: The private, 35-acre grounds offer a parklike landscape containing clay tennis courts and a petanque court, an infinity pool, a chapel, a helipad, and groves from which olives are harvested and pressed for the hotel’s own oil. Side trips to the Riviera, nearby wine estates, and museums are easily arranged.
While you are in Vence, two other local inns are worth a visit:
Le Cagnard ( +33.493.2073.21, www.le-cagnard.com) and
Le Saint-Paul (+33.493.3265.25, www.lesaintpaul.com).
Both, like Château St Martin, boast a Michelin star and Relais & Châteaux membership.