Philosophers, Pianists and Pools: Welcome to Europe's Most Highbrow Spa

Spa - Purple orchid and bamboo on a table
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by Nick Trend, The Telegraph, June 19, 2019

I’m writing this on the balcony of my hotel room, looking out over a wooded glade and, beyond that, to the bare, rocky outline of a high ridge of the Bavarian Alps.

Birdsong echoes among the trees – the only sound in this Arcadian valley apart from the regular plash of a lone swimmer doing backstroke lengths in the outdoor pool on a terrace over to my right. Most of the rest of the guests in this idyllic retreat are probably lounging in one of two enormous spas which are located in different parts of the site.

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It has got me thinking about the extraordinary surge in the popularity of spa breaks in recent years. Not that we should be surprised at our seemingly voracious appetite for health treatments, massages, saunas and steam rooms. Sure, we forgot about that side of things for a few decades when sun and sand packages were in the ascendancy. But for a long time before that, health and physical recuperation were central to the history of holidaymaking. 

Our love of the seaside was born with the Georgian and Victorian interest in the health benefits of saltwater bathing. It was a similar story in the Alps, where grand hotels sprang up all over the place during the second half of the 19th century to cater for wealthy British travellers in search of pure mountain air. And also, of course, sublime, mind-refreshing Alpine vistas. 

Because holidays are not, obviously, just about the body, they are about the mind, and the search for the sublime didn’t just focus on natural wonders. Many spas and resorts turned to music to inspire their visitors.

The Assembly Rooms in Bath were built in 1771, not just as a place where those taking the waters could gather and gossip, but also as a venue for musical entertainments. Harrogate and Buxton even invested in opera houses, while Baden-Baden – Germany’s double-barrelled spa town – also has a long and continuing programme of concerts and performances. 

And that is where the hotel where I’m staying – Schloss Elmau – comes into the picture. It is a classic example of a forward-looking resort which is capitalising on the demand for bodily indulgence, but it also has an extraordinary musical heritage, even its own concert hall.

On the evening I arrived, I wandered into the 300-seater timber-framed auditorium for an evening piano recital. It had more the air of a soirée than a formal concert. Some guests were lounging on sofas at the back of the hall, others were perched on cushions in the window seats. Many of them were chatting in small groups. But hush fell suddenly as the lights began to dim and the slightly hunched figure of Grigory Sokolov ambled on to the stage.  

Sokolov is one of the greatest pianists of his generation. He’s a perfectionist who hones every detail of his performance until he is happy with it. Even the encores – there were six that night – are prepared and planned with immaculate care.

Each year, he tours the great concert venues of Europe, with the programme he has prepared over the winter months, and he invariably gives the first performance of this cycle in this beautifully intimate hall here at Elmau. This year he is focusing on Beethoven (including the third piano sonata) and Brahms. Staying at the hotel – where only guests (and local residents) can attend concerts, and the ticket price is included in the room rates – is an extraordinary opportunity to hear him play.

Solokov isn’t the only great name to perform at Elmau. It has been a centre for chamber music since the Fifties, when the Amadeus Quartet were instrumental in attracting world-famous musicians to come and play here. Many came from the UK, including Yehudi Menuhin, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Julian Bream.

In fact, the connections were so strong that a winter festival held each January was initially named the British-German Chamber Music Week. The tradition of top-class performances has not abated.

This summer alone the line-up includes world-class pianists Igor Levit and Sergei Babayan, the violinist Viktoria Mullova, and singers Christian Gerhaher and Klaus Florian Vogt. In all, owner Dietmar Müller-Elmau expects to host about 200 concerts in any one year. 

There is something of the Richard Branson about Müller-Elmau – the long-haired Seventies hippy who is highly-driven, but likes to do things differently. Apart from some disruption after the Second World War, the hotel has been in his family since it was founded by his philosopher grandfather Johannes Müller in 1914 as a place where like-minded people could come together “to transcend the self-centredness of their egos”.

At first, he says, he hated the idea of running the family hotel, even one with such high aspirations. Instead, he went off to earn a fortune from computer coding – he created Fidelio and Opera, the world’s market leaders in hotel software. He came back to Elmau in the Nineties, rebuilt and extended it after a fire in 2005, and – his greatest coup – hosted the 2015 G7 summit with Cameron, Obama, Merkel et al. 

Although he has invested heavily in the traditional spa facilities here, you can tell from the way he talks that Müller-Elmau is more interested in the mind than the body. He conceives of his hotel as a “cultural hideaway” and I have a suspicion that he is even more interested in the programme of intellectual debates which he hosts than the musical side.

He is keen to point to lectures by the historians Timothy Garton Ash and Christopher Clark and this summer’s talk by novelist Ian McEwan. For me, it was the chance to hear Sokolov in such an intimate setting which made the stay so special. Oh, and the birdsong.

The 50 greatest cultural holidays for 2019

The essentials

Double rooms cost from €300 (£265) per person per night, based on two adults sharing. Includes half board, entrance to all concerts, talks, spas and library, participation in yoga and Pilates classes and guided mountain tours (schloss-elmau.de). 

Munich airport (served from the UK by ba.comeasyJet.com and lufthansa.com) is about two hours’ drive away.

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This article was written by Nick Trend from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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