In Search of the Grandest Hotel That Never Existed

This is the story of two intrepid travellers who embarked on a journey to find the real-life Grand Budapest Hotel mere days before the world changed forever.

What you’re reading now was meant to be published several months ago. Unlike my usual excuses for missing deadlines, I have a really, really good reason for filing this particular article late this time around. Actually this wasn’t even meant to be a written story at all, it was originally meant to be the first episode of a podcast where I would travel the planet to explore some of the most famous film locations in the world. Joining me on this proposed epic audio adventure was my colleague Adu, with whom I had made the award-winning video series Beyond Hollywood.

That was the plan anyway, and it was all going to schedule as we boarded the short flight to Dresden in Germany, from London, in late February 2020. A few days later as we returned home to England, the ripple of concern about a distant threat somewhere in China we had initially brushed off on our departure had become a stark global reality. Recording studios were shut, planned meetings to finish off our script were put on hold and our next episode was indefinitely cancelled.

Looking back at it now as I sit here at the end of an “eventful” year, it seems bizarre that in a few short months from our last trip ending the achievable aim of flying around the world without a care, is now a daunting prospect subject to all-manner of restrictions that no one could foresee. As well as the pandemic, we’re also seeing the growing limitations of fast-tracked Brexit impact travel plans today.

“Whence came these two radiant celestial brothers united for an instant as they crossed the stratosphere of our starry window — one from the East and one from the West.” Agatha, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

 

This story, however, should also serve as a reminder about why we travel in the first place. There’s nothing quite like the buzz of discovering new places, exploring destinations that are different to home and of meeting new people. It might be a logistical nightmare at the moment, but it’s something we all desperately miss.

So in the name of taking the first few steps back to normality, here’s a look back at how I ended up in a quiet German town on the border with Poland looking for the setting of one of my favourite films of the last decade.

 

Where is the real Grand Budapest Hotel?

 

I’ve got news for you. One of the most iconic film locations ever put on celluloid never actually existed at all.

Wes Anderson’s Oscar-winning 2014 movie The Grand Budapest Hotel has gained cult status since it was released. In many ways it is the quintessential Anderson film, full of clinical visual symmetry, pastel colour palettes and deadpan dialogue delivery. It’s a style that is now too easy to parody or dismiss, but at one time it was seen as the height of arthouse cinema – although there is a decent argument to be made that this is a mainstream studio film in spite of its offbeat subject matter and quirky presentation.

The stellar cast includes experienced stars like Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum. Young actors Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori also feature in the hit movie, but arguably the biggest star of all is the titular establishment itself.

In interviews to promote the film production designer and regular Anderson collaborator Adam Stockhausen stated that the look of the movie had to evoke images of the palatial European hotels of the early 20th century. The film is set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, which in turn borrows an aesthetic from real countries in this part of the continent. Think an Alpine resort in its heyday, but with accentuated fixtures and a heightened sense of camp frivolity.

One thing that Anderson insisted on was minimal use of computer generated effects, and as such the hotel at the heart of the story would have to be “real”. For some shots a detailed 9ft model was built, but the interiors would have to be more tangible as actors would need to interact in a real space.

Studio sets were used for some scenes, but once again these could not capture the open nature of an historic hotel that the director was after. After an intensive search, Anderson and his team found the perfect location in a small German town which is also seen in a number of other Hollywood films. The Grand Budapest Hotel you see on screen is not in Budapest nor is it a real hotel. That’s the magic of cinema for you!

This mysterious location was the starting point for our journey however. We were intrigued by the idea of a little-known traditional town – seemingly in the middle of nowhere – becoming such a hotbed of international filmmaking.

 

Arriving in Germany

 

Dresden is a well-known city in the Saxony region of Germany. It’s an interesting mix of modern buildings and a handful of regal properties that survived large-scale bombings by allied forces at the end of World War II. The city formerly sat in East Germany, but following the unification of the country in 1990 it has emerged as a domestic technology hub.

 

Adu claims he can speak some German, so I left him to do all the planning. It quickly became clear he wasn’t being entirely truthful, something that became painfully obvious later on when he said he found the perfect spot for lunch only to share my surprise when we ended up in a restaurant that only served dishes made from potatoes. Seriously, even the desserts were apparently spud-based. Luckily for visitors like us, English is widely spoken and everything is organized in such a logical way that you will find it easy to communicate.

 

We weren’t in Dresden for all that long as our ultimate goal was a 45 minute train ride away from the city centre. Initial impressions, however, were positive. The spacious boulevards – away from the busy metropolitan areas – are impressive. They hint at what the city would have been like before the bombing campaign levelled a lot of the original structures that once stood here. Zwinger Palace and Dresden Castle still stand proud and the waterfront showcases an alluring view on the Elbe river.

 

The city is popular with international visitors who are either looking for a short European break or travellers using the city as a stopover on longer trips. This is exactly what we were doing, but our next stop, and ultimate destination, is a town not many people outside of Germany know about.

 

As an aside, the flight to Dresden took us just under 2 hours. This direct service from London will hopefully return once travel restrictions are lifted and regular schedules are back online, but for now you would have to get a connecting flight from another German airport if you want to follow in our footsteps. Leipzig is the other major city in this part of eastern Germany, although with a bit of careful planning you can also explore this region by flying into Prague in the Czech Republic.

 

You can also fly direct to Berlin and then get a train to Dresden. This is a great option if you have a longer trip in mind as it allows you to spend time in the German capital as well.

 

Hooray for Görliwood!

 

Leaving Dresden on time, the train service here runs with typical German efficiency, I began reading up a bit more about Görlitz. The small medieval town sits right on the border with Poland, so much so that it is actually the eastern most town in Germany. It’s a popular destination for domestic tourism, attracting visitors primarily on the promise of traditional architecture dating back more than 500 years. This level of preservation is something of a rarity, and as we would later find out something that officials go to great lengths to maintain.

 

Baroque buildings, cobblestone streets and historic architecture have also attracted filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Our visit to Görlitz was to see what tourists can expect to find in a town now going by the nickname of Görliwood – is it a clever marketing ploy aimed at capitalising on a burgeoning local film and TV industry, or is this corner of Germany now an unmissable holiday all film lovers have to take at least once in their lives?

 

Set-jetting, a popular travel trend that is set to continue once we all begin our foriegn holidays again, sees fans of famous films and tv shows visit the real-life settings they see featured on screen. These can be incredible landscapes, such as those found in Iceland as captured on the likes of Game of Thrones and Prometheus, or tangential destinations like Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, which is widely believed to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s iconic fairytale castle.

Adu and I have been fascinated by these places for a while, and so the plan was formulated for a podcast to bring some of these locations to a wider audience. A number of popular destinations have risen to prominence after making their screen debut, and it is a huge factor in deciding where to go on holiday for many casual travellers. Fans obsessed with particular forms of entertainment will specifically book trips to recreate scenes they have previously watched. There are countless Harry Potter tours across Scotland and seemingly every Greek island is somehow connected to the making of Mama Mia!

We picked Gorlitz as our first stop as it is easily accessible – something we found out as we pulled into the provincial rail station in what felt like a few short minutes after departing Dresden – and also because it has a fascinating reputation for filmmaking. We just so happened to be in the town at the same time as a Walk of Görliwood initiative was being launched, adding to the cinematic allure of the place. For me, the real draw was the chance to see one of the most famous film locations in the world in person, as well as the chance to speak to the people who made it all possible.

 

Welcome to Görlitz

 

A short taxi ride from the station and we were in the heart of Görlitz. We had chosen an Airbnb close to the centre of town, and we could walk to all the locations we had plotted out beforehand in a few minutes from our base. To be honest, you can walk to any part of the city as we found out on the way back to the station a few days later. There’s a reason why our initial taxi ride was so brief.

 

You’re instantly struck by the distinctive look of Görliz, which some locals still spell as Göerlitz. You can tell why Wes Anderson wanted to make a film here, it seems like a marriage made in heaven.

 

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first walked through the town. No modern buildings, only old ones of old styles. I thought I want to live here, and a few years later I did”, explains Pedro Snoejder. The teacher, writer and local guide was keen to show us more of the town he now calls home after 20 years of living here.

 

“I’m also a part time pastor in a small church in Görlitz…” he adds, as if his other accomplishments weren’t already impressing us.

 

Since settling here, Pedro has looked into the history of Görlitz and now works with the local tourism board to promote the region.

“This was a trading town mainly dealing with cloth. In reality they ended up trading a little bit of everything. Görlitz was on the main trading route through Europe, which was one of the main pilgrim routes too. It was like a motorway for the Middle Ages and it would have been a very interesting place to live on the crossroads of north and south.” Pedro tells us as he guides us through the main Untermarkt square where three medieval towers still remain from the past era.

As we look upwards the imposing Church of St Peter and Paul dominates the skyline. The rooftops of most of the other buildings we see have a distinctive “eye” window peeping back at onlookers. You can see Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences everywhere, but it’s the Art Nouveau movement that has had the most impact here. It’s certainly the reason that Wes Anderson brought his film production to town anyway.

Before we move onto the film world, a few more thoughts on what makes Görlitz so special. We knew we were close to the border with Poland, but just how close came as a surprise. A small bridge, just below the aforementioned church, connects Görlitz to the town of Zgorzelec. It’s no more than a minute to walk across this bridge over the Neisse River, a route that many people take every day. Work is plentiful on the German side, and prices for food and drink are very reasonable on the Polish end. This border was officially created at the end of World War II and this is where the final part of our history lesson unfolds.

Görlitz escaped nearly all the bombing that so badly affected other parts of this region. In addition to this, when the town was part of East Germany, the government went about modernising many parts of the country, but yet again Görlitz managed to remain untouched.

This is a dream for filmmakers in search of authentic locations. More than 100 productions have rolled into town with Tarantino bringing his Inglorious Basterds here as they battled Nazi forces in the award-winning movie. Other domestic crews have also used the historic backdrop for their films and TV shows, with locals now familiar with the entire process.

Our final stop would be Obermarkt, the upper market, and the Art Nouveau marvel of former department store Demianiplatz. This building might be rather inconspicuous from the outside, but once you enter its dramatic vestibule, you know you’re in for something special.

 

The Locations of Grand Budapest Hotel

 

As we made our way from our Airbnb to the Obermakt, we accidently found ourselves on the official Walk of Görliwood. In fact we ran into an opening ceremony of the walk, where members of the national press had gathered to interview the local mayor, Octavian Ursu. Clearly the town is proud of its film heritage, and quite frankly it’s also a potential money spinner.

The walk itself consists of a number of window displays dedicated to films, props and sets that have been closely associated with productions made here. These displays also highlight other cinematic points of interest you might want to explore that are otherwise difficult to find without a guide. Pedro helpfully took us round the corner from the first set of stops on the mapped circuit to one of the many exterior locations used by Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

 

Location Manager Klaus Darrelmann picked out dozens of locations across Görlitz to create the fictional town of Lutz that serves as the setting for the movie. A famous spot worth visiting, or at least posing in front of for a great photo, is the stark walled facade of what was depicted as the Lutz cemetery. This is seen in the opening shot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is actually a disused car park today. Elsewhere, the mayor’s own office was used for a sequence featuring Jeff Goldblum and the Stadhalle (City Hall) is used as a stand-in for entrance of the titular hotel.

Once the crew arrived in town, they instantly knew they had everything they needed in one place. In fact the cast and crew stayed at the lavish Hotel Börse, which was impossible to miss as we wound our way to Demianiplatz. It’s easy to see why some people mistake the hotel as the one featured in the film as from the outside it looks like it was purpose built for the movie!

The hotel used to be an official government building and is now one of the best places to stay in town. Bill Murray would casually have a drink in the bar opposite and he also proclaimed his love of bratwurst sausages in many interviews he did to promote the movie.

Regaling us with even more stories from the production is Martin Silkeit who worked as a driver on the movie. In Germany this role on a film crew is essentially that of a fixer, or “Night Manager”, meaning Martin had to be on hand for any needs the cast might have. When we meet him outside Hotel Börse he has just come back from the filming of the latest Matrix film before heading off to join Tom Cruise on Mission: Impossible 7.

It’s fair to describe Martin as a “character”. Everyone in Gorlitz knows him, and he seemingly knows everyone’s business. I mean this in the best possible way, and it’s an essential part of the job. When the cast needed to unwind, he took them to his favourite Polish pub across the bridge to relax. When one of the young cast wanted to get away and do some shopping, he was on hand to drive them to Prague to get what they wanted.

“I’ve actually seen this one!” Martin exclaims when we run through all the movies he’s worked on and get to Grand Budapest Hotel. You see Martin doesn’t actually watch that many films at all, even the ones he’s involved in, but this one is an exception. The film had a small premiere across town, and went on to win several Oscars.

“Pretty much the whole movie is shot here, and people were very proud. [The locals] love it and even before they finished wrapping on The Grand Budapest Hotel another film began shooting in town.” Martin says. It turns out that the other film in question was The Book Thief, another production that heavily relied on authentic locations to recreate Second World War era Germany.

We’re finally about to get to our intended final stop, but Martin takes us to another location that played a crucial role in the movie. Normally I would start getting annoyed by the delays to our trip, but this one was too tasty to miss.

 

A Piece of Mendl’s Cake

 

Pastry chef and chocolatier Anemone Muller Grossman played a crucial role in the making of  The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s her handiwork you see in many of the scenes centered around Mendl’s, the bakery that employs Saoirse Ronan’s character Agatha.

Anemone was tasked with making hundreds of small cakes – which are known as Courtesan au Chocolat – for the film. These small bites of deliciousness were specifically created for this project, with Wes Anderson having a very particular look in mind for them. Anemone’s main shop was actually in Dresden when she was approached to work on the film, but thankfully for visitors to Gorlitz there is now a small cafe serving her sweets and hot drinks in town. Unfortunately you can’t order the Mendl’s specials here, but we highly recommend the praline snacks on offer as an alternative.

 

We were lucky enough to speak to Anemone in her shop on our visit, and find out more about her involvement in the film. As it turns out, it was a role that came about entirely by chance.

“The original plan was for a friend of Wes from Paris to make all the cakes. For some reason, he couldn’t do it and the crew, who were staying across the road at Hotel Börse, were getting stressed. Then the director [manager] there suggested that only one person could step in…” Anemone tells us.

You see a lot of pastries in the film, but that’s only a fraction of what was actually made. It’s estimated that for every cake you see in the finished movie, Anemone had to bake an additional 40 desserts!

“They needed 500 of them! We had to allow for reshoots and multiple takes, at one point you couldn’t move for cakes” Anemone recalls. “The overall experience was still incredible, even though Anderson can be quite the ‘meticulous’ client”.

The baker and the director worked together to concoct the perfect Mendl’s Courtesan, and even the box the cakes came in had to be intricately designed to open in a certain way.

 

Visitors from around the world still come in search of the treats they have seen on screen, although they aren’t actually served in the  shop. On the rare occasion she has made them to order, Anemone believes that the cakes are merely photographed and not even eaten.

Re-energised by a much needed sugar rush, we waved goodbye to our host and took the few short steps to our ultimate destination.

 

Finally Checking in to The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Wes Anderson’s exhaustive search for the perfect location seemed like it was going to be a fruitless endeavor. Having scoured Europe’s remaining grand hotels, the director got close to what he was after when he looked to the Czech Republic’s Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. The opulent playground of the rich and famous had all the glamour and heritage required, but it still wasn’t quite right. Perhaps it was too modernised (even classic hotels like this get updates every now and then after all), or perhaps it was the potential of over-familiarisation for audiences who would have seen the Grandhotel Pupp in Casino Royale that perturbed Anderson, but an alternative still had to be found. There’s also the fact that a working hotel isn’t practical for a film shoot, and this particular movie was going to require several months on site even before cameras would begin to roll.

Still, armed with images and pointers from this find, Anderson stumbled across a disused department store in Gorlitz, falling in love with what would eventually become the location for his iconic movie.

From the outside, the building known as The Gorlitzer Warenhaus is rather plain. The overt Art Nouveau front is perfectly serviceable but compares somewhat unfavourably with the stunning interior. Plans for the current building were drawn up around 1910, and in a huge quirk of fate a hotel had to be knocked down for the department store to go up. The store was finally opened in 1913 to great fanfare, and instantly became the pride of Gorlitz.

 

When Wes Anderson found it almost a century later, however, the store had long since closed and lay empty. Several attempts had been made to revive its fortunes as ownership passed through a number of hands, but no long-term solution could be found. The release of The Grand Budapest Hotel has seen a huge interest from visitors and tourists, but the future remains uncertain. For now, the custodians of the building are looking after it well and were happy to extend us an invite to see it when we approached them about taking a tour.

Public tours are also run here for general visitors. These usually take place on Thursdays and Fridays, although given everything that has happened in recent months, it’s worth checking long before any visit. Additionally, although the site isn’t in permanent use yet, it does occasionally host private events such as fashion shows and photoshoots.

As soon as I stepped in through the lobby, however, I was instantly transported to the hotel I vividly remember from the movie. The set designers temporarily converted this empty shell into a gaudy, lived in fantasy from the past, but the core of the Grand Budapest is still very much here. An impressive stained glass ceiling illuminates the space below, although the distinctive chandeliers look like they could also do the job themselves.

The director was so enamoured with the location he even tried to buy it, but a local investor ended up taking ownership soon after production wrapped. There are breathtaking details everywhere you look, and once you cut through the dust that hangs in the air, you can even smell and hear a busy hotel operating at peak season. Okay, that’s an overactive imagination at play, but when you stand in a place like this for real, you think back to the countless times you’ve seen it on screen.

That’s exactly what we wanted from our trip. Could this quiet location in Germany live up the image of a grand hotel run by Wes Anderson? It’s not always the case, but in Görlitz we really did find our perfect movie town.

Here’s hoping we can visit more film locations in 2021, hopefully you can join us on the journey with the Film Tourist podcast soon.

Find out about where The Grand Budapest Hotel was actually shot, and how one small town in Germany might seem surprisingly familiar to cinephiles.

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