Venetia van Kuffeler discovers the hills are alive with so much more than the sound of music at Schloss Elmau
MY HUSBAND HAS such a love for Bavaria that on our arrival at Munich airport, he declared he must have been Bavarian in a former life. Brought up in a large Catholic family, their favourite childhood film was The Sound of Music, with dreams of running through meadows wearing lederhosen, eating brätwurst and listening to ‘oom-pah-pah’ brass bands. We were off to stay at Schloss Elmau, a hotel situated between Garmish and Mittenwald in Bavaria, Germany. (Admittedly the film was set in Austria, but the landscape was very similar.) What was I getting myself into?
For weeks ahead of our trip, we gazed at the panomax 365 camera on the hotel’s website. Live 24 hours a day, we admired the snow-capped landscape and steaming pools from our home in drizzly London.
Schloss Elmau has quite a history… Built between 1914-16 by renowned Protestant theologian and philosopher Dr Johannes Müller, he wanted Schloss Elmau to be a space for the development of life free of any ideology, where those interested in his writing and lectures could come together. Known for publicly criticising the Nazis’ anti-Semitism as a “disgrace for Germany,” Müller was constantly interrogated by the Gestapo and kept under tight surveillance.
In 1942 Müller managed to prevent Schloss Elmau from being requisitioned by the Nazis, instead renting it out to the German army as a resort for soldiers returning from the front. After the end of the war in 1945, it served as a prison camp for occupants of a German military hospital, and then as a winter military training school. Culture continued to play an important role throughout the decades, and with the support of the legendary Amadeus Quartet, Schloss Elmau quickly developed into an internationally renowned centre for Chamber Music favoured by world-famous musicians.
In 1997, Dietmar Müller-Elmau (grandson of Johannes) became proprietor and, since then, Schloss Elmau has become a regular meeting place for scholars and politicians from all over the world to meet both formally and informally.
In 2005 a major fire destroyed two thirds of the castle, and two years later the majestic new Schloss Elmau opened as a luxury spa and cultural hideaway, and member of The Leading Hotels of the World group. Furthermore, in 2015 the Schloss Elmau Retreat, where we stayed, opened after two years of construction. A hotel within a hotel, the Retreat is as much part of Schloss Elmau as it is a world of its own with 47 suites, two restaurants, a library, gym, yoga pavilion and Shantigiri Spa with separate areas and pools for adults, ladies and families. The attention to detail is second to none: each room is designed with seven different types of wood, which include wall designs made from the African fig tree, and fabrics printed with the house logo: an elephant.
In June last year, the Retreat hit the headlines as the destination for the G7 Summit, hosting heads of state and government from the US, Canada, Japan, France, Great Britain, Italy and Germany. The image of Angela Merkel gesticulating wildly at President Obama against a backdrop of the Wetterstein Mountains was on the front pages of newspapers across the globe.
Gobsmackingly beautiful and silent, it’s obvious to see why the location was chosen for this important occasion. South facing with incredible views of the mountains, the Retreat is tucked away behind a thicket of trees, separating it from the main Schloss, providing complete privacy for its guests. The atmosphere is so peaceful, it’s difficult to imagine the surrounding woodland crawling with German police and the US Secret Service, as it reportedly was then.
If the guests wish to attend one of the 200 yearly concerts in Schloss Elmau’s concert hall, or dine in one of the restaurants, or go to the bookshop and/or libraries, they can take the short walk up to the main building. (There are also golf buggies for the summer and cars for the snowy months if you do not want to walk.) With endless things to do, owner Dietmar wants his guests to have every choice and experience on offer at Schloss Elmau. As he says, it’s the ultimate luxury to have every choice but to not actually have to take it!
Guests can fly to Innsbruck (just 25 minutes by car), or Munich (an hour and a half). Staying at Schloss Elmau really is a special and unique experience and the Retreat offers the same exceptional experience in slightly different surroundings. Throughout the year, there are jazz festivals, musical master classes, lectures and yoga summits, where you’re just as likely to be seated next to a government minister or spiritual leader in search of some much-needed downtime. Most importantly, guests can find peace, quiet and true relaxation at Schloss Elmau, such rare commodities in 2016.
As for my husband, after he’d been massaged in the spa; driven a BMW i3 electric car (on hand for all guests to borrow) to the neighbouring villages; swum in the steaming outdoor swimming pools (in December); taken garden walks in the sunshine; enjoyed a cheese fondue, outstanding Thai food in the Summit restaurant, wiener schnitzel in the Wintergarten, as well as an eight-course tasting menu in the Michelin-starred Luce D’oro, he admitted this was better than the Bavaria he’d dreamt about.