Schloss Elmau, the luxury Bavarian hotel with a complicated history

G7 host hotel in the Bavarian Alps has been attracting politicians, royalty and hangers-on for 106 years

Step into Schloss Elmau and you may find yourself whisked away by the smell of cedar, the tug of history — or both.

Tucked into the Bavarian alps and surrounded by lush forest, this artistically minded luxury retreat has, for more than a century, been through all the highs and lows German history has to offer.

When G7 leaders check in next weekend, their second visit after their 2015 stay, the return has form. Many guests are happy returnees; sometimes Elmau welcomes back three or even four generations of enthusiastic acolytes.

Set against stunning Wetterstein mountains, its heavenly beds, world-class health facilities and corresponding price tag means Elmau is pitched at comfortably-off families and exhausted executives.

But to survive in a crowded luxury hotel market, with no shortage of dead-eyed decadence, Elmau offers something that cannot be manufactured or replicated: generations of European artists, intellectuals and waifs whose spirits wander these corridors. There are hotels, and then there is Schloss Elmau.

Once you embrace the unique interplay here of man-made and natural luxury you may find yourself, as I did, stepping outside the space-time continuum. Making time tick differently was the main hope of writer, philosopher and self-styled theologian Johannes Müller when he opened Schloss Elmau in 1916.

Bankrolled by a wealthy duchess friend, Müller built Elmau as a “personal sanctuary” for guests open to his wilful, worldly and progressive take on Christianity that urged them to “be joyful, give oneself fully, dare to do things”.

Just as innovative as his promise of mental and physical detox was the mixed clientele it attracted: minor European royalty, politicians, artists and industrialists.

Things got complicated when the Nazis rose to power in 1933: Müller embraced Adolf Hitler as “a tool in God’s hand” and fell in with the “Deutsche Christen”, fanatically pro-Nazi Protestants. But his consistent rejection of legalised Jewish persecution saw him fall out with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and the Gestapo.

Leasing Elmau as a sanatorium for soldiers came back to haunt him after 1945, when he was blacklisted by victorious occupying powers as a senior Nazi supporter. A thrice-married father of 11, Müller died in 1949. Two years later his family reclaimed the Bavarian bolthole, 1,000m above sea level, and rebuilt its Magic Mountain reputation. An elderly German friend of mine was a regular visitor in the 1960s and remembers an idiosyncratic establishment where impoverished aristocratic daughters flocked to work as “helpers”.

Long days of backbreaking work, earning just 70 Deutschmarks a month, were justified by the Müller family as a unique chance to experience “the grace of charity and the blessing of work”.

The real attraction was their relaxed fraternisation policy, allowing off-duty “helpers” socialise with guests, perhaps even snag a wealthy husband and beget the son and heir.

In a 1963 article, Der Spiegel magazine mocked Elmau as offering “escape from life in an evening dress and a Porsche”. Nearly two-thirds of Elmau’s rooms were singles, it noted: “Women of all ages traveling alone feel significantly more free here than in a normal holiday hotel, and much less exposed to the slanderous suspicion of looking for adventure.”

Of course, one person’s adventure was another’s exploitation. One former “helper”, responding to the article, noted how Müller “preferred conspicuously blonde, blue-eyed girls [long before Hitler came to power]” and urged his guests at nightly dances to “be like fairytale children”.

“I imagined children in the fairy tale differently,” wrote Ilse Sauer von Langsdorff to Der Spiegel. “Though things may have changed now, I would not send my daughters there.”

By the 1980s, as Elmau’s flame began to fade, heir Dietmar Müller-Elmau fled to the US. There he made a fortune by developing the “Fidelio” hotel booking system but found himself drawn back to Bavaria in 1997. He invested to revive the hotel as a “cultural retreat”: one evening guests could take in a lecture by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the next a Chick Corea concert.

Disaster struck in 2005 when a short circuit triggered a major blaze. Two-thirds of the hotel were destroyed but, miraculously, no one was hurt. Despite the multimillion expense, Müller-Elmau looks back at the rebuilding as an exhilarating exorcism of old ghosts, allowing him rebuild and meet modern expectations.

A second house, “The Retreat” was built down the hill, to increase capacity and help balance the books.

Speaking of which, Elmau now has one of Germany’s best-stocked bookstores, with a selection as idiosyncratic as the hotel. There is a two-star Michelin restaurant, Luce D’Oro, and a more discreet Japanese restaurant, a tea terrace, a library, a smoker’s room, a sprawling spa area and spectacular, varied views. Above all, though, Elmau is a well-oiled luxury machine and considered one of the world’s 100 best hotels, its staff have been well trained without being homogenised.

Not all long-time guests are happy with the new Schloss Elmau; my old friend revisited a decade ago and was disillusioned. Others keep coming back, though, in particular for its first-class cultural programme of lectures and concerts. During my stay, a guest speaker was Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox; the coming months will see intimate performances from star singers including Rufus Wainwright and Thomas Hampson and master pianists Nikolai Lugansky and András Schiff.

A century after Johannes Müller promised his first visitors a “holiday from the self”, Schloss Elmau still bewitches guests by — as long as they can afford it — allowing themselves luxuriate in life, and themselves.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin