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The Walking Cure

In the footsteps of Hermann Hesse.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By JOHN STEINBREDER
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Montagnola, Switzerland
Friends of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) called him “the endless walker,” and there were few things he liked doing as much. Italy was a favorite place for his camminatas, and Hesse made seven trips to that land as a young man, exploring treasures of the Renaissance in the museums of Florence and ambling through the hills and towns of Tuscany and Umbria. In 1911, Hesse embarked on a three-month journey to India (where his mother and father had worked as missionaries), Ceylon, Indonesia, and Malaysia. This kindled a spiritual curiosity in Eastern religion that later influenced Hesse’s work as well as his constant quest for enlightenment. 

Hermann Hesse (1960)

Hermann Hesse (1960)

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Then there were the treks he took in and around Montagnola, the scenic Swiss village above Lake Lugano that became his adopted home at the end of World War I—and where he lived until his death. In fact, Montagnola is where Hesse most frequently and happily strolled, up and down narrow lanes canopied by cypresses and sycamores, through forests and past vineyards, often in sight of the southernmost peaks of the Alps and the distant lake shore over which they loomed. 

Wearing a straw hat and carrying his easel and paints, as well as a folding stool, he stopped at different spots along these walks so he could record what he was seeing and, in his words, “preserve with watercolors something of the abundant magic.” It was another part of his existence—one outside of his writing—and it was a place where Hesse could balance the intellectual life of his deskwork with life outdoors. He often wrote about the synthesis of those two worlds, most powerfully in The Glass Bead Game (1943). And Montagnola was where he so diligently tried to find—and forge—that balance.

It was the knowledge of Hesse’s saunters through the Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton at the very bottom of Switzerland, that prompted me to go there for a walk of my own. That, and the fact that I had lived for a spell two villages away from the Casa Camuzzi, where Hesse first resided in Montagnola—and where he wrote Siddhartha (1922), Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), and The Glass Bead Game, among other works. It was an easy trip, and an enlightening one too, as it gave me a sense of what moved and motivated the man as I traced his steps, occasionally sitting on benches from which he would have taken in panoramas of lakes improbably lined with palm trees and backed by snow-covered crags, sipping caffé correttos beneath the pergola on the terrace of his favorite grotto as songbirds warbled, and savoring the sweet scents of lavender and magnolia that wafted through his air years ago—and now mine.

In 1919, Hesse, already a celebrated author, moved to Montagnola. He was a broken man, 42 years old, looking to leave the harsher, more buttoned-down north of Switzerland after suffering a nervous breakdown for a place in the softer, gentler south, where he could heal and rejuvenate. He knew the Ticino from his earlier travels to Italy and liked its quiet quaintness as well as its natural beauty. Shortly after he arrived, he rented a four-room apartment in Montagnola, in the Casa Camuzzi, on what was called the Collina d’Oro, or the Golden Hill. 

When it came time for my walk, I started where Hesse himself would have started. Casa Camuzzi, built in the style of a Russian country house in 1853, is a stone abode with cast-iron railings and wood shutters painted robin’s-egg blue. The front entrance is on a narrow, cobblestoned street, and there is a terraced garden in back that overlooks San Salvatore, the wedge-like mountain seemingly rising right out of Lake Lugano, and the cerulean waters beyond. It’s Sunday morning, and church bells are pealing gently as I admire the stately façade of the building, which is today a private residence and not open to the public. But I am able to go into the Torre Camuzzi next door, which boasts a medieval tower and now houses the Hermann Hesse Museum. 

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