Much like the fictional Von Trap family, the Smetacek family of Czech descent, with a brood of six children, make their own sound of music in the hills of Uttarakhand where they run a homestay called The Retreat
What do Jim Corbett, Indira Gandhi, Shekhar Kapur, Supreme Court lawyers, TV professionals and some top advertising professionals have in common? They have all, some time or the other, stayed at The Retreat. Bruce Chatwin, in fact, wrote The Songlines here. Who would have thought this little hideaway in the hills had so much history? Wait till you hear the full story, so here goes.
Smetacek is not a surname you hear in India, leave alone in the upper reaches of Bhimtal in the Kumaon hills. Yet, the town has been home to the Smetacek family since 1951, when Czech national, Frederick Smetacek, came to settle here. How Frederick came to be here is another story in itself, and though long, needs to be told to fully understand the background of The Retreat. It has been narrated to us by his daughter-in-law, Padmini, who now runs the homestay.
A native of Sudetenland, a German-speaking enclave of Czechoslovakia, he is said to have been involved in a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. As a result, he fled Germany and managed to board a ship sailing to India in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. He reached Calcutta and from there to Batanagar where he picked up a job at Bata (a Czech company, as we all know). Then, when the war intensified in Southeast Asia, and Calcutta became the British centre of operations, he moved to the city where he ran three companies providing logistical support to the Allies.
That is where he met and fell in love with a local young lady, Shaheda Ahad. After a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1942, and after the war, decided to move to the mountains. After a 5-year stay in the region, they bought some 1,000 acres in a tea estate dating back to the 1840s, called Jones Estate (named after its last British owner, Colonel Bertram Owen Jones), in partnership with General Madan Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana and the Rani of Balrampur.
Frederick continued to run the tea estate after he purchased the property, but made one change. He turned the estate bungalow into a guesthouse, aptly naming it The Retreat, which became a huge draw for guests from the diplomatic community in Delhi craving for a taste of home. It drew a host of others too, like film director Shekhar Kapur, who shot a part of his film, Masoom, here. In fact, even till as recently as last month, he rented it for over three months as a Covid escape. Another indie filmmaker fresh out of the FTII, Sharad Raj, too shot his first film here back in the 1990s, Ek Thi Maria, starring the late Irrfan Khan.
The senior Smetaceks are no more but Padmini continues to run The Retreat the way they did back then. Unchanged to this date, the 154-year-old bungalow offers the same set of three double-occupancy bedrooms besides a sitting-and-dining room. The gardens and grounds go on for miles, merging into the private forest and estate. As Padmini says, “You step back in time when you come here. It’s an experiential stay in a genuine colonial bungalow maintained in original condition with a gracious old world atmosphere, excellent continental food, peace and solitude, and of course, nature at your doorstep.”
Five of the six kids live here, she explains. Victor is her assistant and manages most aspects, Robbie is a great cook and runs the kitchen, Mack looks after maintenance, Elizabeth is a skilled baker and often does the desserts, while Caroline helps with art-related matters. The eldest, Ela, is in Delhi and deeply involved in environmental issues, including those that affect The Retreat, and helps in protecting the property and forest from destructive poachers and encroachers. Incidentally, Padmini is an English honours graduate from LSR Delhi, who also does freelance editing work.
“The entire family is involved in looking after our guests and giving them a unique experience, and at the same time running the place in a quietly sustainable and eco-friendly manner, as well as supporting local farmers and businesses. This is the legacy handed down to us by Fred and Shaheda Smetacek, which we work to preserve,” she says.