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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tsars, Gamblers, Invalids No Strangers to Spa Town

BADEN-BADEN, Germany -- German Chancellor Helmut Kohl could scarcely have chosen a more appropriate spot for his talks Thursday with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The stately spa resort of Baden-Baden near the French border is no stranger to Russian rulers. Yeltsin's reputation as a risk-taker and his recent health problems also seem in place in a town best known for its casino and curative waters.

"Nice town you've got here!" he told delighted locals during a brief walk in the sunshine.

Few, if any, of the crowned heads who passed through Baden-Baden in its 19th-century heyday would have shaken hands or performed a brief mime the way Yeltsin did. But his visit followed in a tradition of tsars and aristocrats who came to take the waters and gamble away family fortunes.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who spent weeks at a time at the roulette tables, immortalized the tortured soul of the Russian aristocracy -- and the Baden-Baden casino in the process -- in his novel "The Gambler."

Writers Nikolai Gogol, Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev also spent long spells in the resort after Tsar Alexander I established its popularity in Russia with a visit in 1813.

"It is good here -- green, sunny, fresh and beautiful," Turgenev wrote of Baden-Baden, the setting for his novel "Smoke."

Yeltsin, who earned his risk-taker reputation when he helped break the back of Soviet communism, might have sensed the last tsar's ghost as he swept past the gold onion-domed Russian church on his way into town Wednesday.

Nicholas II, executed with his family after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which all but put an end to Russian presence at the spa, worshipped at the church. It now finds itself caught in a property dispute between Moscow and Bonn.

Facing earnest requests from his friend Kohl to return German artworks seized by Soviet troops from the Nazis, Yeltsin was to make a counterdemand at the talks.

He wants churches like the one in Baden-Baden returned to the Moscow-based Orthodox Church, overturning a Nazi-era law that handed them to the aristocratic Russian church in exile.

The Kremlin emphatically denied reports in the German press that Yeltsin, who lunched with Kohl in a country restaurant before accepting a "Man of the Year" award from the German media, might undergo medical treatment during his stay.

Many of Baden-Baden's leafy villas, nestling in the rolling landscape of the Black Forest, have been turned into upmarket clinics specializing in a range of complex treatments for those needing more than a simple drink or a bath in the health-giving waters.

Some locals hope Yeltsin's visit could stimulate the already noticeable trickle of Russian visitors coming back to Baden-Baden. High-rolling "New Russians," who got rich quick under Yeltsin, are already in evidence, following Dostoyevsky's footsteps at the gaming tables.

Some hotels offer Russian borscht on the menu, and the only graffiti in the otherwise spotless town was in Russian. "I love you," it said.