“In a small town”






by Meike Dahlström

“In a Small Town” [1] – Hermann Hesse’s Calw

But the most beautiful town of all that I know is Calw on the Nagold, a small, old, Swabian Black Forest town. [2]

Thanks to Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), Calw, the small dreamy half-timbered town in the northeastern Black Forest, became known far beyond its borders. In his early stories, he makes a heartfelt declaration of love to the small Swabian town under the code name “Gerbersau”; creates a monument to it as a place of longing with his childhood and youth memories. The writer and his small town are so closely connected today that Calw can neither be thought of nor described without Hesse – and wants to: his traces are omnipresent and accompany locals and day trippers at every turn.

Calw is a large district town with a population of just under 28,000 and is located on the edge of the European metropolitan region of Stuttgart. Geographically, the town is located in Württemberg, and the historical connection to the former royal seat of Stuttgart, a good 30 kilometres away, is palpable: in 1872, the Royal Württemberg Black Forest Railway was opened from Stuttgart to Calw, bringing a new rush of excursionists and spa guests to the summer resorts of the northern Black Forest. An amusing fact: although Calw is in the Swabian part of Württemberg, it belongs to the Baden administrative district of Karlsruhe. Calw also lies on the German Half-Timbered House Route. Thanks to the well-kept and lovingly renovated half-timbered houses in the old town, it is easy to let the former medieval hustle and bustle on the market square pass before your mind’s eye.

Calw, © Meike Dahlström

Hermann Hesse, Portrait und originale Schreibmaschine; Hermann Hesse Museum; © LiliGraphie

Calw is literally the picture book template of a small town – with narrow, winding cobblestone streets that make you think at first glance that time has stood still here. It is not difficult for the visitor to imagine how the town might have looked to Hesse; how he walked through the town as a little boy and later as a teenager, knowing everything and everyone by name. There are wonderful, almost fairytale-like corners in Calw: a large market square framed by splendid half-timbered houses in bright colours, a lush town garden where the walk is guaranteed not to be boring even for those interested in literature thanks to the exhibited panels with Hesse poems and townscapes from his time, and not to forget picturesque bridges over the Nagold, which still flows along “with a gentle light-toned murmur” as it once did in Hesse’s youth.

Calw, © Meike Dahlström

Calw, © Meike Dahlström

On the landmark of Calw, the Nikolausbrücke (St. Nicholas Bridge), built around 1400, there is a bronze sculpture with the title “Der Wandervogel” (The Wandering Bird) that sensitively recreates Hermann Hesse’s character and stature. Thus, he can still look down on the quietly drifting water from his favourite place from childhood days:

I stood on the old bridge for a good while […]. The water ran over the nearby weir with a gentle, light-toned roar, further down on the island the ducks were noisy in flocks, at this distance their […] quacking also sounded gentle and monotonous and, like the flow of the river over the weir, had that magical sound of eternity in which one could sink […] […]. I stood and looked, stood and listened, for the first time that day I was again for a little while in that sweet eternity in which one knows nothing of time.

Contrary to these picturesque descriptions, however, the visitor also finds dirty driveways with grey house facades, traffic noise, cheap shops and bulky shopping centres. The city is not a fantastic fairytale place, but it invites all those who want to get closer to Hesse to wander, reflect and dream.

Marktplatz Calw, © atosan

The people of Calw have long been used to the streams of tourists: the city centre with its pedestrian zone is designed for literary strollers and strolling guests; there are four multi-storey car parks in the city centre alone, dozens of restaurants and street cafés and almost even more museums, historical buildings and events, above all the Gerbersau Summer of Reading, as well as guided literary walks.

There is much to discover for Hermann Hesse lovers, but also for those interested in history. The first address is the Calw City Museum, which has been located in the Palais Vischer in Bischofstraße since 1964. The magnificent town house was built at the end of the 18th century in the Louis-Seize style. Currently, a presentation on Hermann Hesse is also shown here, as the literature museum in the historic city palace “Haus Schütz” on the market square is closed until spring 2023 due to renovation work.

Just a few houses away from Palais Vischer, also in Bischofstraße, is Hermann Hesse’s childhood home next to the Calw railway station, which has, however, lost its neoclassical façade after renovation and reconstruction and is hardly reminiscent of the stately building of yesteryear. The same house also housed the theologically oriented “Calwer Verlagsverein”, which was continued by Hesse’s grandfather and, after his death, by his father. Both men lived for the Pietist mission and their worldview had a profound influence on the feelings and experiences of the young Hermann Hesse.

Calw, © Meike Dahlström

Hermann Hesse’s birthplace from 1692, which is a listed building, can compensate for the visual loss of his childhood home: The neat half-timbered house at Marktplatz 6 with its colourful flower boxes and the Lower Market Fountain just a stone’s throw away may not have looked much different almost 150 years ago – apart from the small fashion shop on the ground floor. It seems almost lost in a dream, nestled comfortably in the enclosed half-timbered ensemble of Calw’s market square. Three plaques at the entrance keep alive the memory of Hermann Hesse’s birthplace.

Even though Calw soon became too cramped for the sensitive literary figure and free spirit, and he was drawn to faraway places as a “wandering boy”, the small town remained a fond memory for him throughout his life. Although he only saw his hometown a few times after his departure in 1895, his “little town” remains forever alive and unforgotten in his stories:

You are going to other countries that are more beautiful and sunnier. […] This is now your paradise – but wait before you praise it! […] And the time will come when you will climb the mountains to seek from there the part of the sky beneath which your old home lies. How soft and green were the hills there! And you know and you feel, there still stands the house and the garden of your first childhood games, and there dream all the sacred memories of your youth, and there lies your mother’s grave. – So the old homeland has become unintentionally dear and distant to you.

Read more by Meike Dahlström here – “Beruf und Berufung”, a book about Adalbert Stifter and his “gentle law”.
1 … Working title of a novel fragment by Hermann Hesse from 1906-1909.

2 … The quotations are from Hermann Hesse’s story Heimat (1918).

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