Sights, sounds, the self and a schloss -l’Invitation au voyage in the snowy Bavarian Alps.
There are elephants in the room. I am of course referring to the ubiquitous and recurring elephant patterns of my bed’s headboard, as well as on the couvre-lit, the couch and cushions in the room where I am staying.
And if indeed there is going to be an elephant in the room, perhaps it is something that myself or humanity in general would take as a metaphor. However to Dietmar Müller-Elmau, he thinks otherwise.
His idea of bringing in elephants and placing them close together evokes the chimerical and crimson tinged landscapes of India while sumptuously cocooned in the deep snowy mountains of Bavaria. Yet if you look past the nuances and dare to question, as well as challenge the fixation of elephants, you are likely to discover Dietmar’s philosophical playfulness: alienation and appropriation.
Perhaps one may even grasp the logic of why Schloss Elmau, this remarkable mountain resort hideaway, that he presides over, is a balm of wisdom, ideas and symphonies that move the world. It has been that way since 1916. Arguably the most famous event was in 2015 when Angela Merkel hosted the G7 summit. A photo of the Chancellor, arms outstretched while Obama was seated on a bench became the emblematic symbol of that summit.
“My grandfather created Schloss Elmau as a retreat for his followers to take a vacation from the self – stripping the human psyche of materialism and becoming aware of the acute silence as the essence of BEING. While it was a place of communal living where everyone listened and danced to classical music and marveled at the outpouring beauty of the intimate German countryside, he also wanted a stage where like minded people could freely discuss and debate compelling issues of the day”, says Dietmar, a philosophy graduate turned travel software CEO now owner of the schloss and grandson of the late theologian and philosopher, Dr. Johannes Müller.
While his grandfather envisioned a Shangri-la for a ‘holiday FROM the SELF’, Dietmar perceived a different possibility, a ‘holiday FOR the SELF’ – a paradigm shift mirroring on the need to reclaim and renew one’s BEING.
“There was no concept of luxury then, except for music, the beauty of nature and countryside tranquility”. He confides with me as we sit in front of a fire place while nursing a green tea. Transforming Schloss Elmau into a luxury retreat was inevitable. To Dietmar, there’s nothing quite as appealing to ‘dwell in possibilities’ as he inspires his resident guests the same unrivaled landscape of the Bavarian hinterland, a place of seclusion and a combination of profound pleasures of human experiences: sophisticated cuisine, a well stocked-wine cellar, a concert hall, yoga classes, two libraries and a bookstore make up some of the many attributes that the hotel has to offer.
Yet this alone doesn’t express the essence of Schloss Elmau’s central existence. For those who haven’t unearthed its inner core, it is a cultural nirvana like nowhere else in the world. Not only has it fostered global debates and conversations on geopolitics, globalization as well as international security but mention Schloss Elmau to renowned musicians, and they can’t help but reveal a magical hideaway, perhaps even transcendental.
The legendary Amadeus Quartet once performed here. These days, Schloss Elmau’s reputation draws a diverse mix of world-class classical and jazz players putting up several concerts a week. One could step into an intimate piano performance by a German political activist Igor Levit, who according to The New York Times, is one of the “most important artists of his generation”. He staged 50 live performances at home during last year’s covid lockdown. Ludovico Einaudi, another one of the world’s finest pianists also played here. His most recent works were featured in the award winning films Nomadland and The Father following his musical score success in Black Swan. Then there was the violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos with his ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius of 1734.
During my stay, I was hoping to bump into some of these artists loitering around the corridors. It would have been such a treat as well to sit close to Pulitzer-prized writers Zadie Smith while having breakfast or Julian Barnes for high tea. And perhaps seeing Ian McEwan perfecting a downward dog pose in the same yoga class I signed up to as they contemplate on the next ‘big idea’.
“It’s an egalitarian place” reminds Dietmar (who at the end of our stay volunteered to drive us to Munich before catching our flight back home). Like all prolific artists, musicians, writers, scholars and thinkers who arrived before me and those who will show up later, all come to relax, play, speak their minds and share their time at Schloss Elmau as if visiting one’s own family. “I don’t pay them and they don’t work for their keep”.
Once invited and without a penny involved, artists can indulge themselves in all facilities and possibilities. That meant relaxing in a spacious room in an intimate surrounding, laze in the pool, exchange balls on the tennis court, enjoy the Michelin-starred restaurants, go hiking in the nearby mountains and head to the spa afterwards or simply find a cozy nook to practice during their stay.
In return they give back a little of their time performing in the hotel’s 300 capacity concert hall. Alternatively they may give a talk or organize masterclasses encouraging the hotel’s guests to join the gratis life-enhancing experience. Somehow this ‘play to stay’ arrangement for musicians and thinkers alike reminded me of the days when Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and others exchange their talents, a painting or a sketch for food and lodging in the south of France.
I have checked this month’s cultural calendar and noted a Japanese exposition – poem recitals, a book reading and a film session. The list also included visiting artists like Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first black musician to win BBC Young Musician competition in 2016 and performed during the Royal wedding of Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Nils Landgren, “The Man with the Red Horn” will be coming to blow the audience away once again swinging his red trombone and emerging like a jazz action hero on stage. There seemed to be an endless stream of cultural feasts at Schloss Elmau. No need to fret should one miss a month’s performance, there’s always something to look forward in the next calendar.
The other day I went for an afternoon stroll staying close to the burbling Ferchenback stream that runs almost parallel to the hotel. Velvety clouds hung low and rolled in as if Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata was playing in the background. Somehow the late November sun stubbornly managed to peer through the clouds staining the scenery with soft saffron light. In front of me was the towering Wetterstein Mountain, aglow with warmth despite the thick snow filling its craggy façade.
Here I was standing on top of the undulating meadow that 60 million years ago was once a seabed. There is something distinctly elemental about this place. The old world. The silent siren song of the primordial. The slow world. A stark contrast from the hyper-connected loops of trains and autobahns. In my hors de combat, I was entering a sphere of deep atavisms stripping myself of various regrettable excesses – vanity, swearing, paranoia and the internet; only to emerge at the end, a renewed self.
Could it possibly be that it is the same kind of impression that over the years this place remains and continues to intimate those who set foot to look into the SELF and reclaim the sense of BEING – which may even be the real “elephant in the room”?
Dietmar alludes to the wisdom of elephants “to remember and distinguish” and points out to the Hindu god Ganesh. “Ah the god of beginnings” I say. Bavaria is far from India figuratively but never metaphysically. To look into the earthier world, elephants are path makers of the forest. They paved way for other animals to pass and follow. Ganesh is worshipped first before starting anything. This is the Ganeshian truth. He clears the way for mortals to move forward in life.
I reach for my tea, now getting cold with neglect. Dietmar sips his and goes on to tell me about the nearby Ludwig’s castles – Linderhof and Neuschwanstein of which the Disney’s castle is based. He carries on describing his favorite, the Schachen, the least known among the two, instilling inspiration in him during Schloss Elmau‘s transformation. Then he mentions about the 200 year old fabric shop in Chealsea London where he gets his elephant fabric, his trips to Jerusalem and safaris in Africa. It’s only been half an hour since chatting with Dietmar and it’s as if I had almost traveled the world. But then again, I keep on forgetting that at Schloss Elmau, it’s the world, after all, that travels here.