Wed, Nov 17, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Mann's `Magic Mountain' tends to its last patients

THE GUARDIAN , ZURICH

It is one of the most distinctive views in literature -- a series of long wooden balconies and lodges overlooking the Swiss Alps. For almost a century and a half, visitors have been flocking to Davos, the resort made famous by the German writer Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain.

But now the sanatorium that inspired Mann's book -- an ironic portrait of a group of tuberculosis patients who are drawn to the mountain because of its legendary climate -- is to close. The German-owned Valbella Clinic will shut its doors at the end of the month.

At least two other clinics in Davos are closing as well, threatening the end of a tradition where doctors from across Europe would send patients with lung disorders to the tiny Alpine town.

Since the 1920s and 1930s, when the resort was at its peak, the number of sanatoriums in Davos has plunged from around 30 to four.

"This is clearly a blow for us," Andrea Meisser, the Davos councillor in charge of health, said on Sunday. "The Valbella Clinic specialized in treating German soldiers who were wounded in the second world war ... the only ones left are in their 90s."

The clinic that provided the setting for the novel is perched on top of a hill. It is described by Mann as "full of balcony lodges that from far away look like a porous and hole-filled sponge."

The young hero, Hans Castorp, goes to visit his cousin Joachim in a sanatorium, becomes fascinated by the self-contained world of the sick, and stays for seven years. He leaves only as World War I engulfs Europe.

Mann visited Davos in May 1912. His wife Katja had fallen ill with acute bronchitis and had been advised to spend six months in the mountains.

Like Castorp, Mann discovered a spot on his lung -- but unlike his hero, he left Davos after just three weeks.

Maria Rieder, a spokeswoman for the Valbella Clinic, said it was shutting because of the poor economic situation in Germany.

German insurance firms were increasingly reluctant to send patients to the Swiss Alps to recover. The remaining 40 or so guests were checking out next week.

"It's a shame," she said. "We have wonderful surroundings. It's our south-facing view Mann writes about."

The resort, 1,500m above sea level, with a lake and exquisite views of the snowy mountains, has been a center for invalids and well-off hypochondriacs since the 1860s.

A German doctor, Alexander Spengler, popularized Davos, in the Swiss canton of Graubunden, after noticing that none of its permanent inhabitants suffered from tuberculosis.

The disease had ravaged 19th-century Europe and killed thousands of people. The first four winter visitors were British.

It was Spengler who devised the resort's celebrated "cure:" every morning guests were taken out on to a south-facing wooden balcony on fur-covered rattan loungers to enjoy the sunshine and ice-cold air.

The cure didn't always work. In his novel, Mann described Davos' quiet wooded graveyard and its exotically cosmopolitan gravestones.

Davos's mayor, Erwin Roffler, said he had read The Magic Mountain, but he found it "a difficult book".

"Our problem is that sick people are no longer being sent to Davos," he said. "The air is still wonderful, though. In the morning it is fresh and cool. The climate is exhilarating."

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