In June 2022, the heads of government of the seven most important Western industrialised countries met for the G7 summit at “Schloss Elmau“. The extraordinary five-star luxury resort is located, like the exclusive hideaway "Kranzbach", in a secluded high valley south of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Markus Stein took a look around there
Elmau, the G7 Summit Valley near Garmisch
The summiteers take a break. The guy in the dark suit is sitting relaxed on a wooden bench. His back to the viewer, his arms casually spread. In front of him a lady in a strawberry-coloured jacket, gesturing, she seems to be explaining something important. Are they talking about a mountain tour, climbing? Only, why aren't they wearing outdoor clothes, where are the rope and rucksack? And why are they seen on a flower-strewn alpine meadow and not on one of the steep rocks towering in the background?
The famous scene shows Barak Obama and Angela Merkel in the garden of "Schloss Elmau" Castle, summiters of a somewhat different kind. The photo went around the world, it became a symbol for the 41st G7 summit.
Seven years later, the heads of government of the seven most important Western industrialised countries, the "Group of Seven", met again in the Elmau Valley. The quiet, lonely and well-guarded high valley, barely twenty kilometres by car from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, has proven itself as a summit valley.
Elmau, the "elm-covered meadow", lies at an altitude of 1,000 metres. It is nestled between the Wamberg mountain range, which rises to 1,300 metres, in the north and the Mount Wetterstein face, well over 2,000 metres high, in the south. The floodplain is a nature conservation area. In spring, rare wildflowers cover the humps and hills with their blossoms.
Elmau means as much as the "elm-covered meadow"
Since time immemorial, there has been a farmstead here, later an inn. In the 19th century, a royal Bavarian head of state came to love the seclusion of the valley: Ludwig II. He liked to stop at the inn when he was being driven to his royal residence 800 metres higher up on the Mount Schachen.
Today, the King's House on Schachen with its ornate rooms is a popular excursion destination and can be reached on foot from Elmau in three hours. A cosy mountain hut and a botanical alpine garden also await visitors there.
Morning Dance on the Meadow
The actual story of "Schloss Elmau" begins in 1912. The writer and Lutheran theologian Johannes Müller, born in Saxony in 1864, acquires the farm with the help of a noble patroness and has a "castle" built on the site. Müller had already turned away from church orthodoxy and created his own "doctrine".
He criticised capitalism as well as communism, warned against the "deification of man by man" and regarded Jesus as the "overcomer of religions". According to Müller, instinctive experience rather than conscious recognition opens the door to the kingdom of God.
In 1916, the castle was completed: simple but monumental, with 150 rooms, vestibules, concert hall, wide corridors, hipped roof and tower. It also has a tennis and Bocce court. For Müller, the castle is a "place of freedom for personal life".
Under his direction, people should take a holiday from themselves in the midst of unspoilt nature and in the company of like-minded people, at lectures, concerts (no clapping allowed!) and dance evenings with classical music (no talking allowed!) to take a holiday from the ego and find a "natural, immediate, original life". At the same time, the First World War was raging outside.
From Military Hospital to Cultural Venue
To the horror of some supporters, Müller became a Hitler enthusiast after 1933, whom he saw as a "tool in God's hand" and leader of a "national revolution of the common good over self-interest". Nevertheless, he called anti-Semitism a disgrace and was never a party member. In denazification proceedings in 1946, Müller was nevertheless classified as war criminal. He admitted his error.
Elmau Castle subsequently served as a military hospital and winter combat school for the US Army, as a convalescent home for tuberculosis sufferers, displaced persons and Holocaust survivors. Johannes Müller died in Elmau in 1949. The Bavarian state government leased the confiscated property to his heirs. Elmau becomes a resort and a "high culture" location, especially for chamber music. In 1957, the German-Jewish Music Week is founded. Concerts of classical music are intended to promote reconciliation between Germans and Jews. Artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Gidon Kremer or Friedrich Gulda find their way to the Elmau high valley, as do writers and scientists.
A Fresh Breeze With Dietmar Mueller-Elmau
In 1997, grandson Dietmar Mueller-Elmau took over the estate. He sells his company, which is successful with the hotel software programmes Fidelio and Opera, uses the proceeds to renovate Elmau and redesigns it as a "cultural hideaway".
The first measure was "to remove the compulsion for community. To do this, I symbolically sawed through the middle of the large communal tables in the dining room," says Mueller-Elmau. Furthermore, the fixed table order was abolished, the dance events were reduced to half, and the morning dances were discontinued altogether.
Instead, jazz, literature and political debates enrich the cultural programme, they are meant to bring a breath of fresh air into the castle walls. Cooperation with the Hebrew University and the Chair of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich make Elmau a meeting place for Jewish scholars. Symposia provide impulses for public debates.
Music, Literature, Talks and a Bookshop!
Dramatic break: In 2005, a fire almost completely destroys the estate. "Schloss Elmau" is largely rebuilt as a "Luxury Spa Retreat & Cultural Hideaway" with two hotels: the timelessly elegant "Retreat" with suites, spas and restaurants in warm colours is somewhat hidden on a hillside. The spacious "Cultural Hideaway", on the other hand, fascinates with its Asian atmosphere and refined lighting design. It has restaurants and lounges, spas and a lifestyle shop with accessories and fashion. And there is the concert hall, which survived the fire.
The special attraction of the new "Schloss Elmau", Mueller-Elmau sums it up, is that guests can choose between swimming in the rooftop pool or attending a concert.
High Culture and Top Chefs
The musical-literary programme is always top-class, "high culture is," says Mueller-Elmau, "the highest expression of individual creativity and of a Jewish-American ideal of freedom". The intimate concert hall hosts up to two hundred jazz and classical concerts, festivals and CD recordings with international artists every year.
This year, the pianist Chilly Gonzales, Rufus Wainwright and Carolin Kebekus are among the artists performing. The Israeli Jazz & Food Festival takes place at the beginning of June, with renowned Israeli jazz musicians performing and Uri Jeremias, the chef of the famous "Uri Buri" restaurant in Akko, cooking. And yes, there is even a bookshop in the hotel, where you can meet authors from all over the world at book presentations and readings.
Alpine Pasture or Gorge
For a change from the exclusive resort atmosphere, those who want to enjoy Bavarian mountain hut bliss can hike up to the hotel's own "Elmauer Alm" mountain pasture. It was built in 1924 at an altitude of 1,200 metres. It can be reached on foot from the castle in just under an hour, or in winter on a challenging cross-country ski trail. On the terrace you can enjoy Bavarian delicacies with a magnificent panorama. The 180-degree view stretches from Mount Zugspitze to Mount Karwendel.
A spectacular natural spectacle awaits visitors about seven kilometres west of Elmau in the Partnachklamm gorge. You can experience the impressive white-water gorge with high rock walls, waterfalls, rapids and gullies on an easy, around 800-metre-long path. It is considered one of the most beautiful gorges in the Alpine region.
"Kranzbach": Alps Instead of Highlands
The "Kranzbach" looks as if a country house from the Scottish Highlands has strayed into the Alps. The unrendered, stone-walled "English castle" with its typical stepped gables stands three kilometres east of Elmau in the countryside. Honourable Mary Isabel Portman, a wealthy artist from London, had discovered the beautiful spot when she was driving around the Elmau Valley in the footsteps of King Ludwig II.
She bought the meadow in 1913 and had her castle built on it, at about the same time as Johannes Müller's building activities. It was designed in the style of the English "Arts and Crafts" movement and completed in 1915. It is the only building of its kind in Germany. The lady probably never saw the castle completed. In 1914 she had to leave Germany due to the war. She died in Montreux in 1931.
Today, the "Kranzbach" is owned by a private foundation along with modern new buildings. In contrast to its event-happy neighbour in Elmau, this exclusive hideaway specialises in tranquillity and contemplation.
There are no public events, no public restaurant, no families with small children, no seminars, no weddings, no parties. Only peace, peace, peace. Guests find wellness pleasures in the bathhouse with its pools, saunas and steam baths, relaxation rooms and vitality department. And on the outdoor terraces you can listen to the sound of the pines.
For those who want to retreat even further, a first-class relaxation oasis awaits them in the forest: in the Meditation House by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, guests can embark on an inner journey in absolute tranquillity, alone or under guidance. As long as they are not distracted by the artistic architecture of the forest cottage: three floor-to-ceiling glazed sides allow the interior to merge with the forest, the rest is a filigree puzzle of 1,500 interlocking silver fir shingles.
Take a Seat!
From the 26th to 28th of June, the 48th G7 Summit will take place in "Schloss Elmau". It is quite possible that some participants would like to take a break in such perfect forest solitude. Although there is no forest pavilion in Elmau, there is a large wooden bench with a view. It offers space for seven heads of government. The famous couple of 2015 certainly seemed to like it!