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There was a time not too long ago when Bad Ems was one of Europe’s prime spas, a place frequented by rulers, writers and the well-heeled.

While convalescing at the German spa in the mid-1870s, Russian author Fedor Dostoyevsky, in a letter to his wife, wrote of the crowds and finely attired ladies. He noted that every morning at dawn a band played hymns as hundreds of people, with glasses in hand, lined up for mineral water that was said to have medicinal properties.

“What is Switzerland,” he asked rhetorically, compared to Bad Ems?

Today, this health resort, one of the oldest in Europe, doesn’t spring to the top of many travel itineraries. Nestled along the gently flowing Lahn River, the spa town is a bit off the beaten path, more so than better-known places, such as Baden-Baden.

“A lot of Americans know the Rhine River and the Moselle,” said Ruth Spitz, a tourist officer in Bad Ems, “but the Lahn River Valley is very nice, very romantic.”

Located just east of Koblenz in western Germany, Bad Ems is clearly beyond its glory days. The main thoroughfare has several empty storefronts, vacant buildings and “For sale” signs, all indicative of the challenges spa towns face as they compete with other locales for tourists and wellness enthusiasts.

The hordes of people Dostoyevsky saw in his day, including the high-society types, are pretty much gone. But tour buses do pull into town, unloading visitors who fan out to explore a spa town that over the centuries has catered to knights and kings, priests and politicians, from Czar Alexander II to Bismarck.

“You can see this is a spa town,” one senior citizen said to another as they walked from their bus to the central Kurhaus, part of which dates back 300 years.

Inside, visitors can claim a plastic cup — glasses aren’t used much anymore — and walk the Baroque hallway sampling spring water and surveying Kur keepsakes of yesteryear. They also can stop in an old gargle room with separate stalls and spit sinks and swish some healing water around their mouths and throats.

The mineral water, used as far back as Roman days, “is very good for your health, for your bones,” Spitz said.

Many of the tourists who come to Bad Ems today, especially the younger set, are drawn to the surrounding countryside, which is excellent for hiking, biking, boating and horseback riding. There also is fishing, golfing, tennis and cable cars that take visitors to the top of the gorge.

Back in town, it’s hard to miss the distinctive onion-shaped domes of the Russian Orthodox church, situated across the Lahn opposite the casino. The church is open to visitors 3-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays from April through October, and for just 30 minutes a week, on Fridays at 3 p.m., the rest of the year.

Bad Ems is less than an hour’s drive from Wiesbaden, a spa and casino town in its own right. But if someone is looking for a spa experience without the crowds, Bad Ems may be the cure.

On the Q.T. ...DIRECTIONS: From Wiesbaden, go northwest on B260 toward Nassau. Stay on 260 until it intersects with B261 and follow it north to Bad Ems. Another option is to take the B9 or B42, both of which hug the Rhine River. In Lahnstein, pick up B260 and head east.

TIMES: he public side of the Kurhaus is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Guided tours of the ornately decorated fest hall and theater, with advance notice, are from 10 a.m. to noon and 4-6 p.m. on the same days. Casino slot machines operate from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; roulette and blackjack from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

COSTS: Self-guided tours of the Kurhaus are free. The same is true of spa and city museums. Admission to the Russian church is 1 euro. Fees at the Mittelrheinischer Golf Club is 50 euros weekdays; 70 euros on weekends and holidays.

FOOD: Several restaurants and cafes are located near the city center, serving everything from Croatian to Chinese food.

INFORMATION: The tourist office, near the train station, is open 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30-5 p.m. on weekdays; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays. On winter weekends, the office closes two hours earlier. Its Web site, in German, is www.bad-ems-touristik.de.

— Kevin Dougherty

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