Express news service
Much like the fictional Von Trap family, the Czech-born Smetacek family, with a brood of six children, create their own music sound in the hills of Uttarakhand where they run a host family called The Retreat.
What do Jim Corbett, Indira Gandhi, Shekhar Kapur, Supreme Court lawyers, TV professionals and some of the best advertising professionals have in common? They have all, at one time or another, stayed at The Retreat. Bruce Chatwin, in fact, wrote The Songlines here. Who would have thought that this little hideaway in the hills had so much history? Wait until you hear the full story, so there you go.
Smetacek is not a surname you hear in India, leave it alone in the upper part of Bhimtal in the Kumaon Hills. Yet the city has been home to the Smetacek family since 1951, when Czech national Frederick Smetacek moved there. How Frederick got here is a different story in itself, and while it is long, it must be told to fully understand the context of The Retreat. This was told to us by her daughter-in-law, Padmini, who now runs the foster family.
Originally from the Sudetenland, a German-speaking enclave of Czechoslovakia, he was allegedly involved in a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. As a result, he fled Germany and managed to board a ship bound for India in 1939, on the eve of World War II. He reached Calcutta and from there to Batanagar where he found a job with Bata (a Czech company, as we all know). Then, when the war intensified in Southeast Asia and Calcutta became the center of British operations, he moved to the city where he led three companies providing logistical support to the Allies.
It was there that he met and fell in love with a young local woman, Shaheda Ahad. After a flash court, they married in 1942, and after the war decided to move to the mountains. After a 5-year stay in the area, they purchased some 1,000 acres in an 1840s tea estate called the Jones Estate (named after its last British owner, Colonel Bertram Owen Jones), in partnership with the General Madan Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana and the Rani of Balrampur.
Frederick continued to manage the tea plantation after purchasing the property, but made a change. He transformed the estate’s bungalow into a guesthouse, aptly naming it The Retreat, which has become a huge draw for guests from Delhi’s diplomatic community looking for taste at home. He attracted many others, such as director Shekhar Kapur, who shot part of his film, Masoom here. In fact, even until last month, he rented it out for over three months as a Covid escape. Another newly graduated independent filmmaker from the FTII, Sharad Raj, also made his first film here in the 1990s, Ek Thi Maria, with the late Irrfan Khan.
The senior Smetaceks are gone, but Padmini continues to run The Retreat as they did back then. Unchanged to this day, the 154 year old bungalow offers the same set of three double bedrooms in addition to a living and dining area. The gardens and grounds stretch for miles, blending into the private forest and estate. As Padmini says, âYou go back in time when you come here. It is an experiential stay in an authentic colonial bungalow maintained in its original state with a gracious old world atmosphere, excellent continental cuisine, peace and seclusion, and of course, nature on your doorstep. â
Five of the six children live here, she explains. Victor is his assistant and handles most aspects, Robbie is an excellent cook and runs the kitchen, Mack takes care of the maintenance, Elizabeth is a skilled baker and often makes the desserts, while Caroline helps with matters related to art. The oldest, Ela, is in Delhi and deeply involved in environmental issues, including those affecting The Retreat, and helping to protect the property and the forest from poachers and destructive invaders. By the way, Padmini is a specialist English graduate from LSR Delhi who also does freelance editing work.
âThe whole family is involved in looking after our customers and giving them a unique experience, while managing the place in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, while supporting local farmers and businesses. This is the legacy left to us by Fred and Shaheda Smetacek, which we strive to preserve, âshe says.