Jun 28, 2021
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip through Bavaria during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After almost a week in Italy, the time has come to strike north. I am at Venice’s Santa Lucia Station. I have my negative COVID test to get me across the border. I am sitting regally alone in a private and spacious first-class compartment for four. I sit next to the window facing in the direction we are traveling, And I have one of those “all’s right with the world” moments that comes from being comfortably ensconced in a pretty nice train that has a lazy five hours to get me to my destination.
We slowly glide out of the station and immediately are racing the cars (actually they are racing us) as we traverse the causeway to Mestre and the mainland. Almost as if we are riding atop the water itself, this Galilean moment somehow symbolizes the departure from the magic kingdom that is Venice and the return to mainland reality.
I want to read, I want to write, but I am far too busy staring out of the window. It’s all too interesting. A crisply uniformed, be-masked attendant slides open the door to my compartment and aims a gun at the QR code on my ticket. He slides a “riservato” card into the slot next to the door. A smile, a snappy Buona Giornata and he is gone.
It’s like we are riding through Shakespeare. We stop at “fair Verona,” where there are more than two gentlemen on the platform. Next we “come to wive it wealthily in Padua.” These are places that as far as we know the Bard never visited, just as he never in his lifetime met an actual Jew. Yet this boy from Stratford was able not only to capture so hauntingly the essence of these medieval towns, but also to portray a Venetian Jew with remarkable duality—despised and vengeful, at the same time as one who bleeds when pricked, and a father driven to distraction by his daughter’s betrayal.
I suddenly realize I am a bit peckish when an announcement in four languages tells me there is a bar car in coach 256. I amble back through a first-class compartment with open seating, and through several second-class carriages. Everyone is dutifully masked as they nap, type on keyboards, play with children and munch fruit. Carozza 256 turns out to be one with private compartments like mine, but this is second class, where the couchettes are already in place so six people can snore their way through the night atop red vinyl shelves.
The bar car is actually one of these compartments, sans couchettes, where a man in uniform and mask has an array of sandwiches, cookies, drinks and a coffee urn arranged on a trolley. Incomprehensibly, I opt for a somewhat bizarre-looking vegetarian sandwich and return to the solitude of my compartment-for-four that is only for me.
We glide through Trento where, in the 16th-century, the elders of the Vatican met to define the Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism. Very gently ,we rise from the Veneto into the Dolomites. The scenery gradually changes from Mediterranean flat to Alpine tall. We wind through Bolzano, and through Italian towns with German names. We pass through valleys and mountains. Eventually I nap and am awakened by an announcement that we are approaching the Austrian border.
As we slide into the station at Gries am Brenner, I see a phalanx of policemen in masks. Ah, I think: They are coming to check our PCR tests. We stop only a minute, and the train moves on. Eventually, a policeman enters my compartment. “Reisepass,” he announces. PCR results at the ready, I fumble instead for my passport. He glances at the cover and sees that it’s American, doesn’t even open it, hands it back to me, salutes and moves to the next compartment. He couldn’t give a damn whether or not I have raging COVID seeping from every pore. He’s looking for Syrian refugees. Hmm, I think, well, they will certainly check for COVID results when I cross from Austria to Germany.
We are in Innsbruck, capital of the Tirol. I haul my luggage to the platform and am met by the cordial driver who has always been my escort to Bavaria’s Schloss Elmau. We climb into the Mercedes and switch to N95 masks. We drive through the baroque town, past fields, through a mountain pass, and glide across the border into Germany. It’s all a bit “Sound of Music,” except there are no guards and no inspections. I realize that I just spent 250 euros on an Italian PCR test in which the officials of neither Austria nor Germany have just displayed not the slightest interest. (Lesson 352: You can pretty much be sure you can cross by rail or road from one European country to another and nobody cares if you have COVID. Except, of course, the one time you assume nobody will check and they suddenly might.)
We wind through country lanes and suddenly the trees are gone and there is Schloss Elmau, framed by the Alps, its copper bell tower glistening in the sun. This is my fifth stay here, and yet each time it feels like a new discovery. We draw up at the “retreat” the part of the Schloss opened in 2015 in time to host the G7 meeting. For the first time in my post-COVID life, I am asked not merely for my passport, but also for my vaccination certificate. I proudly produce the latter, in its leather folder, ordered from @spaceflamingos. Suitably impressed, the pretty host takes my card to be photocopied and hands it back to me. I am now considered a “safe” visitor.
I am ushered into a vast suite that one of the G7 leaders occupied (not Merkel, not Obama, but maybe Sarkozy, Cameron?) with its 180-degree panorama of the Zugspitze (Germany’s tallest mountain). I see meadows filled with wildflowers, the burbling brook (yeah, corny, I know, but it is a brook and it does burble) and the resort’s terraced heated pools. It is simply breathtaking. The bathroom is large enough for cocktails for 20, while the living room could host cocktails for 50. There’s space for an intimate dinner for 10 and even a bedroom for my bodyguard (unfortunately I don’t have one).
It’s time for dinner, and Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, whose grandfather created Schloss Elmau in 1916, greets me as I emerge from the elevator. His grandfather’s dream was to create a resort and cultural center for freedom of thought, of mind, of opinion and even of sexual partners. During World War II it became a hospital, then a convalescent home for wounded Nazis. In 1945 it became an allied headquarters and, until 1951, a haven for Holocaust survivors. Some 125 years after its creation it is now a fabulous resort, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, a center for sports, yoga, spa, wellbeing and extraordinary cuisine, plus a hefty schedule of jazz, operatic and classical concerts, and seminars whose goal is to make the world a better place.
Just being at Schloss Elmau takes me to a better place physically and emotionally. Visitors may arrive expecting lederhosen, dirndls and steins of beer, but Mueller-Elmau has gone to extravagant lengths to forbid Bavarian kitsch. It’s all minimalist design that is embracing rather than cold. There are fireplaces, books, acres of couches and guests dressed utterly casually. Dinner on the terrace (at 10 p.m. in June, it’s still light) is sublime. So is the six-course dinner-with-wine-pairing the following night in the resort’s Italianate two-star Michelin hideaway, Luce de Oro.
Dietmar drives me around the neighborhood in his hybrid BMW. We cruise through the village of Mittenwald, which is so flower-bedecked, dirndl-dressed, thatched-roofed Bavarian-perfect that it could be in Orlando. Here in town, an artisan’s family has been making violins for centuries. To this day, musicians come from six continents to the town’s maker of double basses. Before the Nazis, there were 65 Jews in Mittenwald. Today, there’s just me.
Dietmar drives me to a hilltop and turns off the engine. “This is where Adrian wants to build a resort,” he declares. Adrian? Yes, the 84-year-old Dutch-Indonesian creator of Aman resorts, Adrian Zecha, whose sixth (or is it seventh?) career has him opening Azerai resorts in Indochina and Azumi resorts in Japan. Dietmar knows everyone from everywhere and he’s known Zecha for decades.
The following morning is COVID-test time again before my flight home. The Bavarian health department has set up a small, tented texting facility discreetly hidden in the grounds. I complete a form QR-coded on my iPhone. There’s a quick, barely invasive swab of one nostril. Two hours later, a QR-coded negative result pings into my pocket.
The next day my Lufthansa flight to Newark isn’t leaving Munich (a 90-minute drive away) until 4 p.m. So there’s time for a more-than-leisurely breakfast. There is an ample buffet, but to sample it, you must be wearing an N95 mask and saran-wrap gloves. The array of breads, pastries, granola and muesli is home-made. The smoked trout once swam in the bubbling brook. The latte and the eggs benedict come from the kitchen.
Dietmar waves me off and we drive out of the Schloss. We cruise through Garmisch-Partenkirchen, site of the 1936 Winter Olympics. We pass the billboard of a crucified Jesus advertising the Oberammergau Passion Play postponed from 2020 to 2022. We pass the autobahn exit to Dachau. We arrive at the vastness of Munich airport, where three ancient airplanes may be visited by aviation fanatics: a Deutsche Lufthansa Junkers 38 (early in 1939, one of them made it nonstop from Berlin to New York in a mere 24 hours), a Swissair Douglas DC-3 and a Lufthansa Constellation, the plane that “invented” trans-Atlantic air travel after World War II.
Check-in is effortless: a quick glance at my COVID antigen result, my passport is scanned, and my bag tags and boarding pass ooze out of the printer. There’s no time to hike to the Senator lounge, so I buy a can of Gordon’s gin and tonic at a snack stand. Upstairs, where flights to America depart, everything, from duty-free to Gucci to Vuitton to Rolex, is shut tight.
Eight hours later, Lufthansa’s latest version of the Airbus, the 350-900, touches down at Newark. The Global Entry screen recognizes me and prints out my entry permit. Astonishingly, my luggage is already on the carousel. Schloss Elmau to Haworth, N.J., COVID-free in just 14 hours. I’m beginning to find a PCR in every port, and a mask on every plane, which is the new normal when traveling in the time of Corona.