I’m suspended in water in the Bavarian Alps, watching mist roll hypnotically across soaring, snow-dusted mountains as a mid autumn sun rises. Steam radiates off the heated water around me, dissolving where it meets the early morning chill. Otherwise, all is still and I realise that despite the jet lag-induced sleeplessness that brought me here at dawn, I am, for once, perfectly at peace.
This utterly delights me as I’m not a “spa person”. Ironically, neither is the man behind Schloss Elmau, the renowned spa resort I’m in. Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, the sandy-haired 69-year-old who owns the regal property (schloss means castle in German), has made no secret of the fact that spas hold no appeal for him.
Restless and endlessly inquisitive, he had no intention of returning to his family’s Bavarian hotel, having made his fortune selling his software company, which created leading hotel management systems Fidelio and Opera. But fate had other plans.
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Schloss Elmau was originally built in 1916 by Mueller-Elmau’s grandfather, Dr Johannes Müller, an influential Protestant theologian, philosopher and author who vigorously advocated dissociating from self and desire. Post-war (during which the property was unlawfully seized by the state), the property passed to Müller’s children, under whose aegis hosted some of the world’s greatest performers, including Yehudi Menuhin, Alfred Brendel and Benjamin Britten.
This built the hotel’s reputation as a cultural institution, one which Mueller-Elmau upholds to this day. Upon taking over in 1997, he introduced political and philosophical debates, refashioning Schloss Elmau as a “cultural hideaway” where high art could flourish, a process he likens to “putting new wine in old bottles”.
Mueller-Elmau’s opportunity to “make new bottles” came in 2005 when he was forced to reconstruct the hotel after it was destroyed in a massive fire. The new Schloss Elmau launched in 2007, followed by the addition of the adjacent “Retreat” in 2015, which opened just in time to host the 2015 G7 summit (this annual meeting of global leaders was also the birthplace of the viral photo where Angela Merkel was seen gesticulating at Barack Obama).
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