A Swiss-Italian Walk With Hermann Hesse

by Kathryn Cicerchi

In the quiet cemetery of San Abbondio, standing majestically on the Collina d’Oro (Golden Hill) in Montagnola, Switzerland, rests author Hermann Hesse. Easily missed amidst the domed splendor of nearby marble tombs, Hesse’s inconspicuous gravestone notes the life of the beloved Nobel Prize winning, most widely read German author of the 20th Century. His simple stone, next to that of his third wife, Ninon Hesse Auslander, and a pot of drooping, yellow sunflowers, reads only,

“Hermann Hesse: 2 JVLI 1877 – 9 AVG 1962.”

It was here in sun-drenched, sparkling Ticino, the southern, Italian speaking canton of Switzerland, that Hermann Hesse spent the last 43 years of his life and wrote many of his most famous works. As he gazed at towering, green mountains and walked through quiet woods, Hesse’s creativity for writing and painting flourished, and now, 45 years after his death, literature connoisseurs, history buffs, and curious visitors alike can discover the jewel of Ticino that Hermann Hesse called home. Though his grave notes nothing of his work, the loving citizens of Montagnola, who granted him honorary citizenship in July 1962, recognize Hesse in a small but noble museum.

Nestled in the cobblestone streets and shady alleyways of Montagnola, the Museo Hermann Hesse Montagnola hosts four floors of Hesse’s personal belongings and a permanent exhibition of his life and works in the Torre Camuzzi. Built in 1853 in the Russian style by Agostino Camuzzi, the tower is part of the larger Casa Camuzzi and was home to Hesse from 1919 to 1931. The museum opened to the public in 1997, while the rest of Casa Camuzzi remains a private residence. Though small, the museum receives between 14,000 and 20,000 visitors per year, keeping the Museo and its Fondazione, and therefore the memory of Hesse, alive and well.

Family photographs, including one of a shirtless, smiling Hesse with a bottle of vino, line the yellow and red walls of the museum. Glass cases hold some of his hats, umbrellas, spectacles, art supplies, books, and clothes. Resting before the window in a well-lit, yellow room, Hesse’s typewriter now sits quietly, a souvenir of the time when he must have sat before the window, imagining and writing his latest creation. Around its base, a sampling of letters and telegraphs from T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Thomas Mann, among others, commemorates the correspondence between friends and colleagues that Hesse treasured. These notes represent only a small fraction of Hesse’s correspondence, for he is said to have answered an incredible 35,000 letters during his lifetime.

Colorful watercolors and pastels hang on the adjacent wall, noting Hermann Hesse’s less celebrated art. Villas, palm trees, and far-off mountains decorate the scenery in vibrant bursts of reds, pinks, yellows, and blues. Hesse created thousands of watercolors during his stay in Ticino as a testament to his love of nature and the scenery of the canton. He wrote, “It is wonderful to paint; it makes one happier and more patient. And when finished, fingers are not black like after writing, but red and blue.”

Visitors will learn of Hesse’s life through signs and his personal belongings, though posted signs are only in Italian and German. The friendly staff is willing to help with any questions, and also provides brochures in English, Italian, German, and French, so the museum is well worth the visit.

The museum is an important cultural center for the Collina d’Oro and the Lugano region, for it also offers temporary exhibitions, concerts, walking tours, films, and weekly readings. Check the website for upcoming events and exhibits at http://hermann-hesse.assolo.net/.

Perhaps the best way to connect with Hesse is through the walking tour, a 2.5 hour stroll through beautiful Montagnola where the author often walked and painted. He wrote, “On glowing days, I wandered through the villages and chestnut woods, I sat on the folding stool and attempted to preserve with watercolors something of the abundant magic.” The 11 stops on the well-marked trail note where Hesse happily lived, worked, ate, and walked from the age of 42 until his death at 85.

Today’s footpath meanders through the hills of Montagnola, first through sun-kissed villas, quiet except for the noise of families, where bright blue, purple, and pink hydrangeas and dusty yellow sunflowers peek above garden walls. Vines reach out from the hedge into the sunlit path, ready to snag and pull passersbys into their shady depth. A stunning view of Lake Lugano and its surrounding tree-topped mountains greet walkers at stop number two with a friendly red bench to rest tired feet and enjoy the bellavista. On a clear day, Monte San Salvatore and the surrounding vineyards seem close enough to touch. Compared with the photographs in the museum, this view represents a much more developed Lugano, reminding guests of the 45 years that have passed since Hesse once strolled and loved these hills.

From here the footpath stretches past the Cyprus tree-lined path of San Abbondio across from the cemetery where Hesse lies, and into the woods. The trail turns to dirt for a short while, traipsing through a cool copse where sun beams slide through the canopy and dance on bright green leaves. Steep stairs lead upward where the quaint Grotto Cavicc appears, serving traditional Ticinese food or cool refreshment for the weary walker. For those who continue on, another bench rests at stop number six on the edge of a forest glade and a tiny stream trickles next to a purple-flowered, grassy field on the way to stop number seven. After the Hotel-Restaurant Bellevue and a better view of the stunning Casa Camuzzi, the path stretches south to a commemorative stone honoring Hermann Hesse’s 100th birthday and ends at the Casa Rossa, the red house, where Hesse lived with his third wife from 1931 to 1962. Here Hesse developed a love for the solitude and pensive nature of gardening. Like the Casa Camuzzi, the Casa Rossa is now a private residence that can only be admired from the outside.

The sunshine and heat can be quite intense on a sunny day in Ticino, so visitors will likely be ready to rest after the long stroll. The museum is just a ten minute walk back where you can rest in the shade of the museum reading the provided books or pop into the gift shop on the first floor where much of Hesse’s work is available in English, German, Italian, and French. A wide collection of watercolor reprints are available for purchase for 7 Swiss Francs, or choose from several posters for between 15 and 45 Francs. For the collector in search of a Hermann Hesse original, a few original watercolors are for sale, chosen by the Hesse family. (Inquire at the desk for details. All proceeds go to Fondazione Hermann Hesse.)

After a morning or afternoon of exploring Hermann Hesse’s Montagnola, you will truly understand why so much of Ticino’s beauty shines through Hesse’s writing and painting.

Sidebar Info:


Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, 1946

Major works include: Romantic Songs, Beneath the Wheel, Demian, Klein and Wagner, The Glass Bead Game, Klingsor’s Last Summer (characterization of Ticino), Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, many of which are somewhat autobiographical.

Ra Curta
Torre Camuzzi
Casella Postale 214
6926 Montagnola
+41 (0)91 993 37 70

March – October
Open every day
10.00 – 18.30

November – February
Open Saturdays and Sundays
10.00 – 17.30

Admission Fees
Adults- Fr. 7.50
Students and Seniors- Fr. 6

How to get there:
Behind the Lugano train station (Stazione FFS), catch La Posta Bus No. 36 toward Agra to Montagnola, Piazza Brocchi. This bus goes from the center of Lugano to the Collina d’Oro and takes approximately 15 minutes. A return ticket from the train station costs Fr. 6.40–buy your tickets on the bus.

Note to walkers:
A sunny, summer day in Montagnola can be quite warm, so be sure to bring a bottle of water for the 2.5 hour walk. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes as the trail turns to dirt for a short while and the steep hills and stairs of Montagnola can be hard on your legs and feet. A guided tour is also available on Fridays at 3 p.m. from May to October. Tickets are Fr. 20 and include museum admission and refreshment at the Grotto.

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