Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Mann and Motorbike

Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Mann and Motorbike

Article excerpt

In Thomas Mann's astonishing novel The Magic Mountain the indolent young Hans Castorp visits his brave, terminally ill soldier cousin at a sanatorium at Davos, high in the Swiss Alps. Intending to stay three weeks, he remains seven years. A dubious diagnosis of light tuberculosis is all the excuse he needs to dismiss 'the flatlands' and discover, with increasing wonder, that in the midst of death he is in life.

We could have done with more than one night at Le Grand Hôtel Plombières-les-Bains in Eastern France in order to penetrate the Thermes Napoleon to which it is attached. 'Accèss strictement réservé aux curistes' warned a blu-tacked sign on a locked glass door from the lobby, revealing two neatly parked wheelchairs, a neo-classical statue, towels, columns and a blinding enfilade of spotless marble.

Gunning our motorbikes through sun and mist across the Route des Crêtes in the Vosges mountains had taken its toll. My riding pal, a GP, could barely clamber from his Triumph to get at the fags in his panniers.

We were too late for dinner and made do with heavy dark beer up the road. Next morning, in the Grand Salon, we saw ourselves endlessly caught in the Belle Époque mirrors stuffing bread, ham and cheese, shamed by the prettier choices continentals always seem to assemble at the buffet.

Joséphine, doubtless encouraged by the future Emperor, visited the place in the early 1800s to sample waters efficacious for 'maladies des femmes'. Napoleon II, properly grown up, was able to repay his mum's favour in 1867 and lay the first brick of the spa, now specialising in problems including rheumatism and 'troubles du métabolisme'. …

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