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Guest: Monte Verita, Switzerland
Monte Verità:
In the Footsteps of Anarchy

Story and Photos by Gary Singh

Chiara's Rainbow, a multicolored path at Monte Verita, Switzerland
Chiara's Rainbow at Monte Verità

ust as I reach the end of a squiggling, multicolored path, an acorn plummets from an oak tree above me. It lands at my feet, just as the path culminates at a mandala of Venetian glass, eight feet in diameter. On the worn-out front lawn of Monte Verità, the Mountain of Truth, this path, Chiara's Rainbow, evolves through the colors of the spectrum--red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet--before arriving at the mosaic mandala where psychic energies supposedly prevail. The falling acorn brings me to the present moment. The path, designed to radiate energy and facilitate mental well-being, is an artwork dedicated to Chiara, a woman who is no longer with us.

Through a smattering of oak trees, wild olive plants and earthy foliage in every shade of green, I see Lake Maggiore, far down below, as it fades into the labyrinthine neighborhood of Ascona, Switzerland. Across the sapphire-colored lake, the hills lurch above the horizon like mammoth foreheads. Sailboats lilt on the water, although from my vantage point up here on the hill, they are but white specks.

Lake Maggiore and Ascona as viewed from Monte Verita
View of Lake Maggiore from Monte Verità

Nearly a century ago, this hill, Monte Verità, welcomed anarchists, vegans, occultists, nudists and a detoxing Herman Hesse, but today, except for the Italian academics finishing up their biochemistry conference at the Bauhaus hotel and congress facility directly behind me, I am the only one staying here. The birds and the moths don't count since they occupy the place year round.

the Bauhaus Hotel at Monte Verita
The Bauhaus Hotel designed by Emil Fahrenkamp in 1927

Hetty standing near the locale at Monte Verità
where she was born over 80 years ago

My guide, the white-haired Hetty Rogantini de Beauclair, was born here in 1928. As she leads me around the rest of the property, I become aware that she is the last living connection to the original era of Monte Verità.

That era, beginning around 1900, attracted Ida Hoffman and Henry Oedonkoven, who founded the colony. Women took off their corsets. Men wore long hair and beards. Everyone pranced around naked. The colony vowed to return to a simple life, away from what they saw as the horrors of the industrialized world. As anarchists, they strove to simply provide a third alternative, after capitalism and communism. Initially they ate just raw vegetables. Hetty says the only animal allowed was the donkey that carried the water.

Naturally, the colony attracted intellectuals, radicals, experimenters and artists of every discipline. Hermann Hesse first arrived around 1907, after which he wrote Demian, his experiment in Jungian self-analysis. The Dadaists Hugo Ball, Hans Arp and Hans Richter soon followed. Lenin came around 1910. A few years later, modern dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban established a "School for Art," attracting a roster of disciples including the dancer Isadora Duncan. Other notables who showed up included the painter Paul Klee, the mystic Rudolf Steiner and the occultist and Grand Master of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Theodor Reuss, who even organized a multidisciplinary conference of his own. Just about every flavor of counterculture throughout the twentieth century can be traced back to Monte Verità.

nudists at Monte Verita in the early 20th century
Residents of Monte Verità, decades ago

outdoor shower from the early 1900s, Monte Verita

As Hetty and I traverse the landscape, she keeps complaining that other visitors have left too many pebbles on the trail, making it dangerous to walk on. She keeps kicking the rocks away, out of our path. The de facto caretaker of the property, she does this every twenty minutes or so. As dry leaves and twigs crackle underneath our feet, I get the feeling she knows every square centimeter of the entire topography.

At a portion of the property disguised by overhanging trees, she points out relics from 100 years ago: an outdoor shower, bathtub and remains of a tennis court, all of which were originally used by the nudists of Monte Verità. It's 25 degrees Celsius, but I feel like I'm wearing too many layers.

outdoor bathtub from the early 1900s, Monte Verita
Outdoor shower and bathtub from 100 years ago

She continues to school me on the history: In 1926, Baron Eduard von der Heydt, a cosmopolitan art collector from Holland with a penchant for Buddhism and other eastern religions, took over the reigns of Monte Verità. Some of the exotic trees he planted still exist on the property. With von der Heydt at the helm, a new era began and he commissioned the German architect Emil Fahrenkamp to construct the Bauhaus-style hotel in 1925.

"At that time it was the best hotel in Ascona," Hetty tells me, as we step sideways down an embankment into a large clearing. To the sound of distant seagulls, we stand on a giant lawn Hetty says is common for banquets and events. What used to be a concrete swimming pool 90 years ago has now been converted into an open-air space for meetings, conferences and performances, complete with a stage and lighting trusses.

outdoor performance space converted from old swimming pool, Bauhaus Hotel, Monte Verita
Former swimming pool from 100 years ago,converted to
an outdoor performance space

Normally, one also finds a museum here, housed in the old Casa Anatta building, dating back to 1904, but the structure is currently undergoing renovation. Until the retrofit is complete, the hundreds of artifacts, photos and ephemera are stored down the highway in Bellinzona. Someday they will return.

Casa Anatta
Casa Anatta, originally built in 1904,
now being restored

The space-time continuum easily shatters on Monte Verità. Today, the Bauhaus Hotel still sits atop the hill, presenting elements of the rational and mathematical, juxtaposed against the fluid, imaginative surroundings. ETH Zurich operates the conference facility, which continues to function as a place of research and experimentation. The restaurant offers gastronomical delights with spices from the gardens outside. Eranos meetings, originally launched by Carl Gustav Jung, still continue. There are concerts, plays and even weddings.

The hill also claims one of two Peace Poles in Switzerland, steles symbolizing unity and brotherhood that are planted in highly symbolic places throughout the world. The project promotes arts education, friendship and communication, all to cultivate an attitude of inner peace and harmony.

Newer components of the complex include a Japanese teahouse and Zen garden, further blurring the boundaries between nature, philosophy, behavior and science--precisely the intentions of the forward-thinking characters that populated this hill 100 years ago. Inside the teahouse, several homemade blends peer at me from underneath a glass case.

homemade teas at Monte Verita
Several homemade teas are available at Monte Verità

At Monte Verità, the spirit of the twentieth century's first counterculture still lingers here. The experience presents a different flavor of historical travel, an unorthodox foray into currents long ignored by conventional twentieth century narratives. Here, I occupy an interstice, simultaneously inside and outside of history.


Much of the history at Monte Verità remains intact, but much remains to be seen

Related articles:
Basel, Switzerland; The Rosengart Collection, Lucerne; Switzerland: Europe's Jewel Box; Zurich Dada; Eichhorn Schwyzerorgelfabrik and Musikhaus; Switzerland's Graubunden Region; Christmas in Switzerland


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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

* * * * *

Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA


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