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Dale Bechtel, "Searching for Truth on Monte Verità"

"Searching for Truth on Monte Verità"

Dale Bechtel, Swissinfo

Ascona is Switzerland’s most popular southern resort, but
the cradle of European counterculture is only a shadow of
its former self.

Swiss-Germans and Germans come for a relaxing holiday on the
lakeside, most unaware that leading European anarchists once
tried to build a utopian society here."Today, tourists come by the busload, and they're badly
dressed," laments 82-year-old Ascona resident, Ursula
Roelli. "It's not like it once was."

Roelli is the daughter of the Swiss-German architect who
built the Bauhaus hotel on Monte Verità ("Mountain of Truth")
in 1927, the name of the hill overlooking Ascona.

Monte Verità was also the name of the alternative society
founded there more than 100 years ago when a handful of
European intellectuals decided to start a movement based on
a primitive form of socialism and vegetarianism.


News of the society quickly spread, and soon anarchists from
across the continent were descending on the poor fishing

They came to experiment, and were frowned upon by the
villagers because of their beliefs and the fact that they
carried out many of their experiments in the nude.

"The women of Ascona always had to wear black," remembers
Roelli. "The local people were very religious so of course
they didn't like what was going on there."

By the 1930s Monte Verità had gone through various
transformations, moving away from its strictly utopian

It became a centre for experimental dance and attracted many
artists and writers: Hermann Hesse, Paul Klee and Aleksey
von Jawlensky, to name but a few.


Everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and George Orwell to Germany's
National Socialists "fed on a living stream of thought that
had its source in Ascona", wrote American professor Martin
Green in his book, "Mountain of Truth. The Counterculture

But the truth of the matter is that counterculture moved on
to other places, and by the 1950s Ascona was on its way to
becoming what it is today: a chic holiday resort and place
in the sun where northern Europeans go to retire.

"It would be good to invite artists here again; writers and
painters with new ideas who could breath life back into the
place," says Claudio Rosetti, director of the international
conference centre that has taken over the Monte Verità site.

"However, one still does sense the spirit of Monte Verità,"
Rosetti continues as he opens the door to the museum devoted
to the alternative movement.

The Casa Anatta building, which houses the museum, was one
of the first constructed by the utopians.

"It's unfortunate that the conference centre, run by
Zurich's Institute of Technology, is closed to all but
scholars. That's why I would like to open it up more for
cultural events."

Michele Vester, who lives close to the renovated Bauhaus
hotel, believes Monte Verità has remained a special place.

"You can still feel the energy that drew so many interesting
people from all over the world," says the interior decorator.

"Artists who came here — and still come here — have done
some of their most inspired work on Monte Verità," he adds.


Vester's grandfather, Karl, came to Ascona in 1900 and
became one of the movement's first members, eventually
building his own house on the hill overlooking a lush
subtropical garden and Lake Maggiore.

Vester, who now lives in the house, says it was his
grandfather's wish to create his own utopia, where he tried
to live as self-sufficiently as possible, baking his own
bread and keeping a small herd of goats.

"He made special bread but he smelled terribly of goats,"
laughs Ursula Roelli. "He was the last of that first group
to remain on Monte Verità."

Besides Roelli's memories, there are pictures in the Casa
Anatta of the longhaired Vester, and many of his companions,
dancing and gardening in the nude.