Who goes to Bad Ems these days? Not enough people, judging by the softly melancholy feel of the place when I visited one fine day in the early spring of this year. The little western German spa sits in the deep, improbably picturesque valley of the River Lahn, which is one of Germany’s prettiest. Its lovely setting aside, it has its share of historicist architecture and a fine Café-Konditorei, Maxeiner; the provision of good quality coffee and cake is as essential to the smooth functioning of a German spa as healing waters. It’s by no means the most dourly medicinal of the German spas I have visited: step forward Bad Reichenhall for that honour. And there’s the Emser Therme, a thoroughly contemporary spa complex a short distance from the historic centre, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and those mysterious beauty treatments that men like me don’t entirely understand.
Yet for all its charm Bad Ems is in quiet decline. The population peaked in the 1970s and has been falling ever since. Unusually for a German resort, it is not immune to visible signs of decay; here and there wrought iron rusts, paint fades and varnish peels. The older of the town’s two funicular railways is slowly rotting into vandalised oblivion, a victim of the TÜV – the ferociously thorough German safety inspectorate – which decades ago declared it unsafe. Like the echoing amphitheatre of some long-forgotten Olympics, Bad Ems has the air of a place from which events have long since moved on.
And that, of course, is more or less the truth of the matter. There was a time when anyone who was anyone came here to take the waters. There’s a plaque to Jacques Offenbach, the operetta composer who was born Prussian and died French; Wagner was here and so was Rimsky-Korsakov. Goethe stopped by, but he was an obsessive traveller and there are reminders of him almost everywhere in central Europe, so that rates as no particular distinction. Dostoevsky was here too, perhaps to fuel his gambling addiction at the Spielbank. Jenny Lind and Gogol, Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix all added to the cosmopolitan, artistic flair of Bad Ems in its nineteenth century heyday. The architecture is as confidently international as the guest book: there’s an Orthodox church on the riverfront with a Schloss Balmoral nearby; pre-First World War facades along the main drag confidently identify themselves as Windsor House and Zur Petersburg.
These royal names are not just the usual hoteliers’ snobby bombast. The Russian Tsar Alexander II – a nephew of Prussian King and later German Emperor Wilhelm I – visited regularly between 1838 and 1876. Something about the late spring of 1876 disagreed with him because it was while taking the kur in Bad Ems that Alexander issued the Ems Ukase, a proclamation which banned the use of Ukrainian in literature or live performance.
But Bad Ems is, of course, better known for another official communique, the Ems Telegram. On 13 July 1870 Alexander’s uncle was waylaid by the French ambassador, Count Benedetti, while taking his morning constitutional in the Kurpark. The ambassador sought assurances that no Hohenzollern would ever again be a candidate for the Spanish throne; the Prussian king politely declined to give any such assurance and sent a telegram to his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, giving an account of the discussion. Calculating that if war with France were to happen now was as good a time as any, Bismarck released a carefully-edited version of the message, which gave the impression Wilhelm had crudely rebuffed the ambassador. It had the desired effect. When newspaper reports were published in France the next day – Bastille Day – public opinion was outraged. France declared war on Prussia five days later and was defeated convincingly within the year.
If the circumstances and setting of it all nowadays have an air of comic-opera absurdity about them, the consequences were serious enough for France, with a mighty, newly-unified German Empire for a neighbour and control of Alsace and much of Lorraine passing to that eastern enemy. But more about that in my next post.
Bad Ems Tourist Information: http://www.bad-ems.info/html/cs_1.html&lang=2?PHPSESSID=78d865bddb9916f4ab7d15e3384e0032
Emser Therme: http://www.bad-ems.info/html/cs_6580.html&lang=2