CHATEAU MCELY: A CZECH RETREAT
Daily Mail Saturday Magazine, January 2009
Needless to say there was a stag party on our plane: lads in matching tee-shirts all set to booze and behave badly in the capital of the Czech Republic. Poor Prague, I thought - the stags and hens who totter obliviously around its historical elegance go for cheap beer instead of Charles Bridge. Indeed, many people have no idea there are other places worth visiting in this country. So - whisked away from the airport in a car and driven for an hour - we were heading to one of those perfect small hotels which are a destination in themselves, and as far removed from stag and hen raucousness as you could wish.
On a personal note, I was desperately seeking solace. Though I love writing my Saturday advice column for this paper I do become overwhelmed (sometimes) by the relentless woes of the world, and overworked too. But as an occasional travel writer I am equally unresting; take me to a great city like Milan and there isn't an art gallery or church I will leave unvisited. It can become hard work. Also, my office at home, Saturdays and Sundays will often find me at the computer. I needed peace. To arrive at a place where there would be nothing to do except rest, eat, sleep, stroll in exquisite surroundings. So we came for a weekend at Chateau Mcely (pronounced muh-selly) to find nothing more elusive than…. rest and retreat.
Slick modern styling has its place (and in its place I like it) – but this time I was in need of the smooth, soft elegance of a less frenetic age. From the moment we swept up the gravel drive to the imposing entrance to the 17th century building – lit by early evening light - I knew we'd found it. Beneath a wall of ancient hunting trophies, they welcomed us with their trademark cold drink made from herbs found in the surrounding St George forest. Then we were led to the Mark Twain suite. This was the first piece of delightful serendipity. The great American writer stayed at Mcely when it was owned by the aristocratic Thurn-Taxis family. I'm a fan of his wit and widom– having even made the pilgrimage to his house on the Mississippi. They couldn't have known that. It was Mcely magic.
The house has just 24 bedrooms, ranging from the huge, romantic, white and gold bridal/honeymoon suite (called 'Legend'), to the floor of 'single' rooms (actually small doubles) each one individually themed and hand-painted for the months of the year. Weddings are a big event there; you can take over the whole place and they will arrange everything. The Chateau also puts in special weekends (chocolate tasting, ballroom dancing, mushroom picking…), but for me the task was how to learn to do nothing: no laptop, no email-checking, no phone calls – a state of what might be call zen-zilch. On the first day a two hour massage was the obvious time-filler. I intended to appreciate the lovely room, the haunting music, the candles – and the sweet young Czech therapist. What happened? I tumbled into a deep sleep and woke stupidly blissed-out. I just hope I didn't snore.
The whole point of hotel-as-destination is that you relax into the spirit of a place – and for that to happen the place has to be special. Which doesn't necessarily mean grand. The truth is, I've always had an ambivalent attitude to luxury. When I was young I despised it as the province of rich, middle-aged people who needed four waiters to serve one silver dish, and would bawl them out if they got something wrong. Over-priced hotel boutiques, celebrity patronage, gilt mirrors and fusty swags, snooty desk staff, soul-less lobbies…not for me. Though never a back-packer, I tended to equate virtue with the small family-run hotel, even if it meant pokey rooms and mediocre food.
But the truth is – middle-aged myself now, I've learned to love quiet, easy, unostentatious style. Chateau Mcely ticks all the boxes. It's certainly beautiful, though not scarily grand and at dinner the waiter does lift the silver lids with a flourish, yet at the same time the hotel feels like somebody's home. Your own… in your dreams. There's an open-air Jacuzzi on the terrace – but a child's sandpit in the garden. The wine list is amazing and the mirrors are – yes – gilded, but the whole place is child and pet friendly. The staff are quite exceptionally friendly and helpful, the food delicious. You can rent a 1961 convertible Skoda (plus its proud owner Karel Resl) and tour the countryside, or just walk freely in the park and nearby forest. What's not to like?
It so happened that our visit coincided with the birthday of one of the owners, Inez Cusumano, and she'd arranged a dance class for her friends – and any hotel guests who wanted to join in. Robin declares that teacher Tereza's instruction in Czech were the reason he was such a clumsy dancer – and anyway, he was trying to take photographs! Me - I was strictly happy to be twirled around by her handsome partner Lukas, all my childhood ballroom dancing skills returning. Inez's American husband James laughed, 'I prefer rock n'roll!' He should know. In the late fifties he was lead singer with a group called The Royal Teens who had a smash hit with a little number called 'Short Shorts.'
That night I realised the secret of the family atmosphere. The Chateau's particular magic is due to Inez herself, who saved it from certain destruction. It's a romantic story. In 1653 the first Chateau, was built in an area which had been settled by ancient Celts and by 1841 the old building was rebuilt in classical style. Eight years later the village of Mcely was renowned for alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary before three little girls, - the 'Mcely Miracles.' Jump to 1869 and the chateau, owned by the aristocratic Thurn-Taxis family, was the scene of lavish parties, hunting, and a life of luxury fated to end with the Communist coup of 1948. The government seized the Chateau, stripped it, used and abused it. In 1960 it was turned into a store for the Ministry of the Interior – and trashed. With gaping holes in the roof, no windows and shattered stone work all it was fit for was demolition.
Until, in 2000 Inez saw it. A property expert, scouting for a friend who wanted to buy a big house, she walked though the derelict rooms stinking of neglect and felt ' that I had returned home.' She couldn't sleep for thinking about the place – which her friend rejected from one look at the photographs. In 2001 Inez paid 'a crazy price' which was far below what was asked, and became the proud owner of a ruin. She'd long wanted to create some sort of 'centre' for like-minded people to exchange ideas and restore their spirits too. How could this ruin turn into her dream, when she had no more funds?
The modern 'Mcely Miracle' happened at the end of 2001. Inez went to the States and was introduced to James Cusamuno – in a depression due to the deaths of his wife, his father – and all those killed on September 11th. Since his pop singer days James had gained a PhD, owned a business in Silicon Valley, recently sold. The rest is history: Inez saved James and James helped her to save her chateau – a massive project which used local skills as well as one of the Czech Republic's best designers, artist Oto Blaha. The hotel opened for business in 2006 and and now hosts a leadership programme for business people from all around the world, as well as being garlanded with the hotel trade's equivalent of Oscars as well as the European Union's rare 'eco' sign.
I know I'd be mad to say that I sensed all this in the loving attention to detail: the curtains, the plates, the library – and the whole atmosphere. But how can you define what makes a hotel special – other than acknowledging the importance of a vision? Inez and James have a hotel motto: 'We make a difference in the world by making a difference in you.' Not bad, I thought – as I noticed the pretty Cheateau Mcely bookmark the maid had placed in the scruffy paperback I'd carelessly left face down. And realised that I hadn't thought about work once.