Dispatch from the Road

Travels in Corona Europe: My Adventures in Germany

by Geoffrey Weill
Schloss An idyllic Bavarian setting. Photo courtesy of Schloss Elmau.

Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill recently spent ten days traveling around Europe. We enjoyed his daily email dispatches so much, we asked if we could publish them. What did a discerning, professional traveler find? A mixed reaction to Covid. Here is what he found in Germany. You might want to catch up on the first two installments first: from Newark to Portugal and Switzerland, and throughout Italy. Geoffrey's forthcoming All Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession will be published in January 2021.

9: In the Heights

Munich airport in normal times is so massive, it feels empty. Today it feels hollow. Footsteps echo ominously across the marble. The drive through heavy traffic and heavy rain is not made less heavy by seeing the highway sign to Dachau. The driver weaves me south into the Alps. Leaving the autobahn, I am finally in Bavaria, where picture-perfect villages have picture-perfect houses with picture-perfect gables and window boxes, and picture-perfect murals depict cows, cornucopias, crowns, and Christ (the German essentials?). I pass the ski-jump built for the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We sail past the highway sign to Oberammergau, whose controversial Passion Play has been performed in every zero year since the 1640s, except in 1940. The 2020 performance has been rescheduled for 2022.

We climb higher through dense forests and dense rain and wheel into the confines of Schloss Elmau (a client), whose art-nouveau tower is visible beneath the cloud cover. I am staying in The Retreat, the modern and breathtaking wing that played host to the G7 meeting of 2015. The photograph of a standing Angela Merkel, arms outstretched, as she makes a point to the seated Barack Obama, the Alps soaring in the background, has become iconic. I am welcomed into the warmth and gemütlichkeit of the contemporary yet somehow historic interior. My vast room’s balcony faces the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany, which I cannot see through the rainclouds.

Covid-19 has, of course, changed Schloss Elmau, as it has changed everything else. Instead of dinner when you want it in one of many restaurants, there are fixed seatings at 6 and 8 p.m.. Everyone is masked and the hotel is — wait for it — completely full. Almost all the guests are German; and there are dozens of children, as it is the half-term holiday. Instead of whizzing to Majorca, Germans, like Americans, are discovering their own backyard. From my terrace, where it is a brisk 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I watch families cavorting and swimming in one of the seven pools whose water is heated to 90 degrees.

The visionary who created the 21st-century Schloss Elmau, Dietmar Müller-Elmau, joins me at dinner. One of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, Dietmar combines an IQ of about 400 with an intellect, humor, curiosity, liberal philosophy, and business acumen that astonishes. He tells me that the Covid-19 infection rate that Germany has kept miraculously low for months is on the rise. Bavaria is not permitting visitors from Berlin or Frankfurt to enter without a negative test, and he’s getting cancellations. But he’s also sanguine and optimistic, and the hotel is doing remarkably well. Despite, or because of, Covid.

I keep my windows open and sleep soundly, snug under a vast duvet. In the morning, the rain and clouds are gone when I draw the curtains. The sun and the snow-capped Alps are blinding. Breakfast is a shocker: a vast and open pre-coronavirus-style buffet of every delicacy imaginable. Even though everyone is masked, it doesn’t seem quite right. Indeed, I confess to feeling not a little horrified. But then I notice, next to the platters of smoked salmon and prosciutto, a giant basket of disposable gloves that every breakfasteer must wear before touching anything. This is a novel approach, and seems eminently sensible. Bemasked and begloved and no longer bewildered, I serve myself breakfast.

In one of the several spas, the steam rooms are shut, but the saunas are open. Spa treatments are very regimented and separated so everything can be deep-cleaned. The various pools, each with its own profile — family, adults, clothing optional — are all open and seem to be doing a raring business. I stroll through the bookstore (arguably the largest hotel bookshop in Europe) and peer into the gorgeous concert hall that dates from the opening of the original Schloss Elmau in 1916.

Walking through the lawns and paths of the seemingly endless grounds, I listen to the tinkling of cowbells and think about last night’s vice-presidential debate. I did not wake at 3 a.m. to watch it; I read about it in the New York Times online. Pausing at that bench on which Obama sat while Merkel talked, I shudder as I think what America and the world have lost.

Beauty and whimsy at Schloss Elmau. Photos by Geoffrey Weill.
The bookshop at Schloss Elmau. Photo courtesy of Schloss Elmau.
Angela Merkel and Barak Obama at Schloss Elmau. Photo courtesy of Schloss Elmau.
The Shantigiri adult pool. Photo courtesy of Schloss Elmau.

10: The Hills Are Alive

The following morning, Dietmar and I chat about Israel (after Schloss Elmau and his family, his chief love). And we dissect the Harris-Pence debate, the fly atop the vice-president’s head, the election and its inevitably macabre aftermath, and the realization that the Constitution and its safeguards we all thought were built on granite actually teeter atop quicksand. He tells me something I never knew: That it is and was not uncommon for the nine judges of the Supreme Court, including, as he calls her, “Ginsburg,” to travel together with their spouses to Europe visiting, amongst other places, Schloss Elmau. It seems unimaginable to me that these nine people in whom we place so much trust and awe and fear, and whose judgments we lament or applaud, can apparently pack away their agendas along with their robes and be, well, average Joes.

I decide, at my advanced age, to try something new: the Shantigiri Adult Spa and outdoor pool where visitors must be “at least sixteen” and which is classified as “clothing optional.” (Clothing may be optional, but masks aren’t.) The specter of young, middle-aged, and elderly German ladies and gentlemen — fat, slender, buff, sagging, pert, bulging — walking, sauna-ing, swimming in total nakedness-but-for-their-masks is, at first, absolutely staggering. But it then quickly becomes routine. I dare to enter the 90-degree Fahrenheit pool, quickly and modestly dashing in to the depths. The pool is enormous, but Covid regulations mandate that no more than six guests may partake at any one time. I share the pool with two ladies in their late sixties; a couple in their early thirties, whose female half appears at least seven months pregnant; and a tattooed yoga teacher who body is so perfect it’s sickening. We do leisurely laps. We float, appendages bobbing. We rest our arms on the side of the pool and admire the manicured lawns, the meadow of mauve wildflowers, the forest of pines, and the snow-capped Alps above the tree line. Some make their way to the sauna or shower. I make for a linen-covered chaise longue to bask in the weak October sunshine.

Germans do relaxing so much better than Americans. We seem to arrive at resorts like this and instantly plan excursions, 6:30 a.m. yoga, mountain biking, hikes in the forest. Germans seem to get to some of those activities…eventually. But they know how to relax seriously. They laze without our Puritan guilt. They mount sun loungers, and appear entirely comfortable spending days on end, sunning, napping, reading Goethe or Philip Roth, stacks of newspapers, and the recent issue of the Der Spiegel magazine, whose cover sports a glaring Donald Trump beneath the headline “American Psycho.” Perhaps it has something to do with their having an average of six weeks’ vacation a year instead of our paltry two or three.

An empty Munich Airport. Photo by Geoffrey Weill.

11: Back to America

If I thought Munich Airport was empty when I arrived, I couldn’t have begun to imagine the desolation of Terminal 2 on departure. Ranks of check-in desks stand unused. Acres of marble reach to distant windows through which I can see Terminal 3 under construction. I don’t think Terminal 3 will be needed for quite a time yet. Maybe 2024. 2025?

Even though I’m flying TAP to Lisbon and connecting to Newark, I check in at Lufthansa. The check-in lady seems cheered to have something to do. I know she’s cheered because she isn’t wearing a mask and her smile is visible. No mask?!?! Nope, because she is shielded behind a panel of glass so massive it would protect her from a cruise missile, never mind a droplet of Covid. I make my way through security — laptops and tablets can remain in the bag, but you have to remove your belt — and cruise the deserted Hugo Boss store and decide I really don’t need yet another pair of Boss Jeans to sit in the closet neatly rolled with the six others as I work from home.

But I’ve found a nifty new use for the Duty-Free Shop. One can spray the inside of one’s masks with the cologne of one’s choice! I spritz Eau Sauvage in my brocade mask, Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil in the bag of N95s. Now I can smell Paris instead of my breath. A definite plus.

As everywhere in the airport, the Senator Lounge yawns with hollowness. Tables are widely spaced, which is particularly unnecessary on a Saturday when there are few business travelers anyway. I witness a whole new hospital level of hygiene. No more buffets: Guests stand behind a red line on the floor atop a socially distanced circular decal and points at choices through glass. Everything is served. The lady from the Philippines who serves meatballs and potato salad smiles happily. The lady from West Africa is confused by my request for a gin and tonic, hold the tonic. Eventually, we work it out. There is a buffet of sorts: desserts in individual mason jars; the spoons in sealed envelopes.

I sit and eat and drink, and when the traveler at the table to my left leaves for his departure gate, an employee swoops in to clear the table, spray it, wipe it, then spray and wipe his chair.

It’s all so ghastly. And yet it’s all so enormously reassuring. It is truly marvelous how in just thirty weeks, massive and expensive adjustments have been instituted in order to make traveling safe and to keep the globe spinning.

I’m in Business Class on the Munich-Lisbon flight, but, apart from the quite nice food, I’m as scrunched as if I were in the back. The German guy next to me subtly peers at me as if I am demented as I don my ski goggles — although we both seem to be sporting similar N95 masks. Except I bet his isn’t infused with parfum de Hermès.

Transiting through Lisbon is irritating, not because there’s anything wrong with the airport — indeed it’s one of the best (where else can you buy hundreds of artfully packaged cans of sardines?), but as the plane banks over the city, and you see the red rooftops, Belem Tower, the Roman aqueduct, the gracious plazas, the Tagus — you really want to be staying, not passing through. I think of all those desperate to leave Europe in 1940 who ended up in Lisbon, a happenstance so heartbreakingly evoked in David Leavitt’s The Two Hotels Francfort. But I am not a refugee, just eager to get home, to see my family and complete my mail-in ballot.

I locate the Business lounge (TAP’s own lounge has been closed since March: odd, no?), to which my Priority Pass membership grants me entry. It’s Covid-protected and Covid-grim. I eat a pastel do nata. I drink gin, this time with tonic. I strum my fingers. I read. I catch up on Instagram. I watch the sun set over the dozens of grounded TAP planes, parked wingtip to wingtip until the plague is over.

At least twenty flights are leaving this evening: to London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Bucharest, Brazil, Madeira, and mine to Newark. But the one that intrigues me most is China’s Capital Airlines, to Daxing via Xiangying. Now, I’m a pretty seasoned traveler. But how many passengers can possibly be bound tonight on a jumbo jet from Portugal aboard a beyond obscure airline, to exceptionally obscure Xianyang, and onward to Beijing’s even more obscure Daxing aerodrome, all in the midst of a global pandemic? It boggles the mind.

But it gets better. As I hike the fourteen miles to my gate, I pass the boarding area for Capital Airlines’ flight JD430 to Daxing via Xianyang. And there, seated primly upon the socially-distanced benches, sit at least forty passengers in bright-white, hood-to-toe polyester bio-hazard suits. That’s going to be a fun flight.

Somehow, I’m the first passenger down the jetway to my flight, and I’m asked to wait at the plane door while the steward painstakingly arranges disinfecting wipes in intricate fan shapes atop a tray. Suddenly, the little side door of the jetway opens and two burly men from the policia, wearing giant badges, escort two young men whom I assume are Americans, one tattooed, pierced and white, the other Black. Each carries official-looking forms bearing a variety of stamps. I figure they have overstayed their welcome in Portugal and are being deported.

We board, and I organize myself for the flight. Once again, I’ve arranged a single flatbed seat without neighbors. The rest of the passengers board, including the presumed deportees. In Business Class, I think there are three of us who actually bought a ticket. The remainder of the passengers are TAP flight crew in uniform. We take off on time. It’s been a long day, and I start watching a new Catherine Deneuve movie through my ski goggles, but it’s too much like hard work. I switch to Downton Abbey and smile for two hours. I eat, I sleep, I pee, I sleep, I pee, I read, we land.

America. I’m through Global Entry in 30 seconds. I wait at the carousel and, as my bags are “priority,” they arrive, as is customary at Newark, close to last. I walk to the exit and notice that the always rather small photograph of Donald Trump has been replaced by notices demanding the wearing of masks. But not a word is uttered, not a form is distributed, not a notice is displayed suggesting anything about quarantine or self-isolating. On my flights to Portugal, Switzerland and Germany, I had been asked to complete a government form giving my seat number and contact details to assist contact tracing, just in case. The United States, it appears, does not seem to feel such a practice is necessary. As I wheel my bags through customs, I notice that just one passenger has been ushered aside to have his luggage inspected. It’s one of the deportees. The Black one. Yup, I’m back in America.

Next up: Quarantine at Home

Read the Full Corona Europe Travel Diary: Portugal and SwitzerlandItalyGermanyHome

Geoffrey's book, All Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession, will be published in January 2021 and is available for pre-order.