TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
... AND WAR
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Bavaria.
There isn’t a parent who hasn’t had to dream up endless ways to keep children occupied during a long car drive, or, worse yet, during a sightseeing tour that’s too adult for them. “Let’s count the red cars!” “Let’s spot the North Dakota license plates.” “Let’s count how many naked butts we see in the Louvre!” Well, even though my younger kids are far too old for such diversions (13 and 16), and, anyway, their iPhones are surgically implanted into the palms of their hands, we did come up with a new game this week in Munich: “Let’s count the Ukrainian flags.” They were everywhere. Not just hanging from bedroom windows. But outside government buildings. Atop the Opera House. Even monuments were floodlit in blue and yellow.
The United flight from Newark to Munich was so oversold that for 48 hours I had been receiving emails, pop-ups, SMS’s, begging, beseeching, pleading for us to accept $500 per person and switch to a different flight – connecting through Frankfurt or Bogota or Zanzibar. But the kids had just a week off school, and as nice as $2,000 in cash might have been, we wanted to get to Munich as planned, especially as, with a 6:30AM arrival, I had booked our hotel from the night before. At Newark, we sat for two hours in the plane while a thunderstorm rattled the 767’s roof, and we landed two hours late on Good Friday in Munich.
Throughout Europe, Good Friday and Easter Monday turn Easter into a four-day holiday, and we hardly saw another vehicle as the driver whooshed us into the center of the city to the Hotel Vier Jahrezeiten. (Vier Jahrezeiten is German for “Four Seasons,” but the hotel is one of the leading members of the Kempinski group (“hoteliers since 1897”), and has no connection with the Four Seasons chain.) Opened in 1858, everybody who is everybody has stayed at the Vier Jahrezeiten, from Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose murder in Sarajevo help kickstart World War I) to Queen Elizabeth II, from Robbie Williams to Sophia Loren, from Reinhard Heydrich to Vladimir Putin. Although, none of these, slept, I imagine, in the new wing where we were billeted. While perfectly lovely and with every amenity, the new rooms don’t have the history, high ceilings or caché of those in the original building. We left our luggage in our rooms and descended for a massive breakfast (none of us ate on the plane) of cereals, eggs, and, for me, a giant mound of salmon caviar. After a nap, we were refreshed and in a taxi to BMW-Welt. Vast and modern and stainless-steel and glass perfect, BMW-Welt is less like the World’s Fair pavilion it’s touted to be, and more like an immense BMW showroom. After sitting in a variety of models of BMW and Mini (the Rolls-Royces were sealed behind barriers), we got the point, and on we strolled into the Olympia Park.
Before our trip, my wife and I had discussed with our 16-year-old if she wanted to visit Dachau. The Nazis’ first concentration camp opened a month after Hitler’s succession to power, and was built adjacent to the small town of Dachau, the village just outside Munich whose name will forever live in infamy. My great uncle Hugo spent six weeks there after Kristallnacht, in 1938, only to be released and gassed four years later in Auschwitz. Eventually, our daughter nixed Dachau, and decided to make do with an in-depth tour of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial during this coming summer’s vacation.
But for those of us old enough to remember fifty years back to the Olympic Games of September 1972, Munich has newer, grisly memories. It was on the tenth day of those games that members of Black September, a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, broke into the Olympic athletes’ village, murdered three Israeli athletes and took another eight members of the Israeli team hostage. In order to free them, Black September demanded Israel release 234 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, as well as Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof of Germany’s notorious and eponymous terrorist “Red Army Faction.” The Munich police surrounded the Olympic Village, and negotiations began. A masked Palestinian stepped out onto the apartments’ balcony and his photograph was instantly seen on TV screens worldwide, and on the front page of every newspaper on the globe the following day. Negotiations between Munich, Bonn and Jerusalem went into overdrive. The West German government pulled out every stop to thrash out a solution. Eventually, it was agreed that the terrorists and hostages would be bussed out of the Olympic Village, then helicoptered to Fürstenfeldbrück airbase, where the hostages would be released and the terrorists flown to an as yet undisclosed Arab country. The world watched as the late-night transfer was begun, and we all went to bed with the news that the hostages has been freed. The truth only emerged during the night that all the hostages, five of the eight of the terrorists, and a German policeman had been killed in a bungled attempt to free the captives. The games paused briefly after the hostage-taking, but then quickly resumed. In a remarkably insensitive and callous address, chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, insisted the games continue – save for a paltry one-minute silence at the closing ceremonies. The “Jewish question” was not new to the odious Brundage: he led the American team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, acquiesced to the removal of Jewish athletes from the U.S. delegation, and had resisted all pressure to withdraw our country’s participation in protest against the misdeeds of Germany’s Nazi government.
The Olympia Park memorial to the murdered athletes sits between the athletes’ village (now presumably lovely apartments) and the main Olympic stadium that, after the games, became home to the FC Bayern soccer club. We were intensely moved by its tribute in sculpture, video and graphics recalling the events of a half-century ago and its victims. Joggers passed the memorial. Some stopped to investigate. We were by no means the only “pilgrims” pausing, coincidentally, on the eve of Passover, at this heart-rending monument to a harrowing moment. Closer to the stadium another sculpture records in Hebrew and German the names of the victims.
By the evening, drained by jet-lag, long walks and emotion, we strolled from our hotel to the Spatenhaus an der Oper, a classy, traditional Bavarian restaurant that faces the city’s neo-classical opera house. The need to wear masks or show vaccination certificates scrapped a month earlier, we were instantly shown to a cozy booth with Hansl and Gretl pine furnishings. If you have never visited Germany in the spring, then you’re unaware of the country’s passion for the season’s white asparagus. Great piles of it are served as a main course, with boiled potatoes and about a half-gallon of artery-clogging Hollandaise sauce. The super-hungry add a Wiener Schnitzel as a side order. The flavor of white asparagus is subtler than our usual green, but actually it is the identical vegetable except that the white variety is grown underground and never exposed to sunlight. Covering the plants with sand, digging every spear up individually, and then laboriously peeling them, is what makes them so costly and such a delicacy. But, never fear: white or green, the after-effect on the human kidneys is identical.
The quiet of Good Friday was gone on Easter Saturday morning. After another massive Vier Jahrezeiten breakfast, we wandered past the Maximillianstrasse’s inevitable branches of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Jimmy Choo and all their global companions into the Altstadt (old town) with its giant open-air farmer’s market – the Viktualianmarkt (literally “Victuals (vittles) Market”), where Münchners and tourists have been shopping since 1807. Even though 90% of the Altstadt was flattened by British and American bombers during World War 2, much of the original architecture was restored or recreated by the early-1950’s, so the Altstadt still feels authentically “alt.” Adjacent Marienplatz teemed with holiday-weekend shoppers, and nearby we visited the 16th-century Frauenkirche (or Munich Cathedral) whose twin domed towers managed to survive the bombs and are fabled symbols of the city considered to be Germany’s wealthiest.
I tried to persuade my kids that we should attend a performance of Delibes’ “Coppelia” ballet on Saturday night at the Munich State Opera House -- but was greeted with rolling eyes. My entreaties that it would be a grand experience in the grandeur of the grand neo-classical building that dates from 1818 (grandly rebuilt in 1963 after bomb damage) – were all for a grand naught. They wanted to see the “real” Munich, and so the “real” Munich is what we saw. It was a 12-minute cab ride to the Augustiner Stuben, part of Munich’s oldest brewery dating from 1328. It’s massive. And loud. Extremely loud. We were shown to a vast table by a Black waiter in lederhosen, and given menus. One thing was clear: you don’t have to come to Munich in October to experience the ambiance of Oktoberfest. Giant tankards of foaming beer were hefted by hefty waitresses in dirndls. Mountains of sauerkraut with ski-slopes of sausages were on every table. Did I mention it was loud? Not just because of the boozy crowd, but because of the oompah band we couldn’t actually see, but whose rhythms thumped so loud it hurt the chest. My daughter was upset that we would have to share our table with maskless strangers presumably spraying covid droplets amid their beer foam. My son hated the thought of sausages and more sausages. My wife was deafened. And I –intrigued as I was by the scene, by its authenticity, by the promise of beer and bratwurst, by the curiosity of a Black waiter in this temple of Aryan-ness – could not quite stop myself obsessing about a similar beer hall where, 99 years earlier and two miles distant, a pretty much unknown man with a toothbrush mustache, and a squadron of chums, had attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government.
We cabbed back to the Marienplatz and found ourselves inside the tiny Ristorante Galleria. I instantly knew it was going to be splendid by the quality of the water tumblers on the tables. Not your usual boring clear glass, these were brightly blown in an assortment of colors, and with straight-from-Murano polka-dots. The kids launched into plates of pasta, my wife ordered the branzino, and I discovered what has to be, guaranteed, without doubt, without question, the finest, most delicate, most creative Vitello Tonnato (slices of cold veal with tuna sauce) on the planet. The garrulous owner told us she hails from Sardinia, where she owned a Michelin-star restaurant. Well, for my money, Munich’s Galleria also deserves a Michelin star. Maybe two. Even without the oompah, the dirndls and the lederhosen.
The driver summoned to drive us to Schloss Elmau pulled up at the Vier Jahrezeiten at the strike of eleven on Easter Sunday. As we eased our way to the autobahn, Munich was back to its sleepy holiday emptiness. We whizzed through meadows as the highway gently rose into the Alps. We passed through Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with its soaring ski jump built for the 1936 Winter Olympics, and its picture-perfect thatched houses with brimming window boxes and wall murals depicting cornucopias, crowns and Christ. We passed through the village of Krün into the Wetterstein Mountains and there – as gorgeous as when it was opened in 1916 is Schloss Elmau. Built by the grandfather of the current owner, the brilliant Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, it was, until the Nazis, a place for cultural edification and sexual freedom. After World War II it became a rehabilitation center for Holocaust victims, and in the early 21st-century reopened as a hotel and concert hall. Ten years ago a second über-luxury hotel, the Retreat, was unveiled – and this became home to the president of France, the chancellor of Germany and the prime ministers of Britain, Canada, Italy and Japan for the G7 meeting in 2015. In June 2022, their successors will meet at the first G7 meeting to be held again in the same location. Because of the massive security required to seal Schloss Elmau off from the world, the schloss will close two weeks before the event. And this year’s meeting will be longer than any earlier G7, and possibly the most incisive of all, as its main focus will be Ukraine.
What makes Schloss Elmau (a member of Leading Hotels of the World) so unique are not just its multiple spas and outdoor pools each heated to at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but that its décor and ambience are utterly un-Bavarian. The architecture and interior décor is simply grand, with Asian touches, and elephants embroidered on curtains, pillows, chairs. Multicolored acres of silk divide the spaces. Books are everywhere. Couches are everywhere. Roaring fireplaces are everywhere. And the panorama of the Alps from each room – including the view of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain - is simply breathtaking.
Dietmar Mueller-Elmau is not just the owner, but the general manager, and a friend. With an IQ of about a thousand, he spends many an evening in the hotel, sitting with his guests, chatting about politics, religion, history, the arts and music. And music is partly what Schloss Elmau is all about. The original schloss features a 300-seat concert hall with not only views of the Alps but also perfect acoustics. We attended two concerts (gratis for hotel guests): one, a quartet of piano, trumpet and guitar with a somewhat aging singer performing Anglo-American hits of the 1960’s and 1970’s; the second, a quartet of American Chamber music performers (three siblings and a friend) who gave a startlingly elegant performance of Dvorak, and a classical suite based on Yankee Doodle. Each concert earned a standing ovation from a highly sophisticated audience. I love the note in “Libretto,” the Schloss Elmau concert listing booklet, that explains that concerts are open to all, “including to children who can sit still for an hour.”
Days at Schloss Elmau are spent doing nothing or everything. It has Europe’s largest hotel bookshop. It has a library where silence reigns. It has a cigar lounge. It has closets of games and jigsaws. It has electric bikes, archery, yoga options, soccer camps. There is nightly jazz in the Hideaway bar. Its mélange of spas offers massive spaces, saunas, steam-rooms, ice-rooms, and pools for (take-your-pick) adults-only, for families, and separately for adults who opt to swim, sun and sauna naked. I frequented the latter a couple of years back, and recommend 100SPF sunblock for certain rarely exposed body parts at an altitude of 3,300 feet.
Midway into our stay we took advantage of the loan of one of Schloss Elmau’s electric BMW IX SUV’s, supplied by the firm in its hope of furthering sales – which I am pretty sure is successful. Driving it was a dream. There’s no engine noise, just a faint hum. It accelerates like a Saturn rocket, and you barely need to use the brake as you control the speed with the accelerator. We whizzed along private toll roads through pine forests and vineyards to the magnificent Tegernsee (Tegern Lake), whose shore side villages and populous, like Garmisch-Partenkirchen, seem like they’re from MGM’s Bavarian central-casting. We lunched at the historic Bräustüberl Tegernsee – more Bratwurst, sauerkraut and white asparagus – and this time, melt-in-your-mouth potato pancakes. And beer, of course. I mean there’s really no point in touring Bavaria to lunch on General Tso’s Chicken, right?
Lufthansa’s 4PM flight from Munich to Newark is perfectly timed so there is no frantic morning, no wake-up calls, no panic…and a massive leisurely breakfast. We strolled to one of the Schloss’s spas for the antigen test whose negative results, a couple of QR codes later, pinged into iPhones. My wife and children were returning to New York, while I continued to Berlin. Lufthansa is very astute at making it easy to upgrade at check-in, and for 300 Euros, they flew home in Premium Economy which they said, rated a 10. What was shocking, however, was that at no time, not at check in, not on boarding, were they required to show anyone their Covid test results. Which, on reflection, seems to be a very un-German lack of thoroughness. And as we stumble hopefully towards the end of the pandemic, that’s possibly rather calming. Or not.