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The scene of the crime

Following in the footsteps of William Tell, we cannot avoid coming here. The Hohle Gasse is the stretch of dark forest road where Tell ambushed Gessler.

It is a picturesque setting unfortunately disturbed by the roar of traffic from the busy road only a stone’s throw away.

It is a place of pilgrimage, and a restaurant has been built at one end to take advantage of the countless people who come here every year by the car and busload.

For some inexplicable reason, it is an Italian restaurant named “Balestra” - Italian for crossbow - and copies of Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus stand in the garden instead of statues of Tell.

Yet the restaurant is merely a distraction – a place to quench one’s thirst or satisfy one’s appetite before wandering through the Hohle Gasse.

It is a narrow, rocky path leading up a slope hemmed in by thick vegetation. An ideal place for an ambush. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

Save the 16th century chapel at the upper entrance to the path, nothing is original.

Paved over

The old road was enlarged in 1930 to meet the demands of growing traffic. The Hohle Gasse disappeared under a thick layer of asphalt.

A restoration project was launched a few years later, and every Swiss schoolchild was asked to donate 20 centimes to finance the scheme.

The project was successful, and the money raised was used to move the road a few metres south to bypass the historic landmark.

And the Hohle Gasse was reconstructed.

But in the Middle Ages, it was not a narrow path as it is now, says Hans Grossrieder of the Hohle Gasse Foundation. Then, he says, it was wider to accommodate people travelling by horses and carts.

Romantic image

“It was rebuilt on the romantic image the Swiss had of the Hohle Gasse based on Schiller’s work,” Grossrieder says, quoting from the drama:

“Through this ravine he needs must come. There is
No other way to Kussnacht. Here I'll do it!
The ground is everything I could desire.
Yon elder bush will hide me from his view,
And from that point my shaft is sure to hit.
The straitness of the gorge forbids pursuit.”

When Tell assassinates Gessler, it is tyrannicide:

“Thou know'st the marksman - I, and I alone.
Now are our homesteads free, and innocence
From thee is safe: thou'lt be our curse no more.”

This historic spot has also given Ernst Gunti pause for thought. An amateur actor who has played Tell on stage on several occasions, Gunti comes to a different conclusion.

“Tell was given credit as the man who freed Switzerland, but he was simply at the right place at the right time. He really just wanted to get his revenge,” Gunti says, reconstructing events as if they had really happened.

Yet, as we walk along the path leading to the Tell chapel, the words of Schiller have the most resonance:

“Our country's foe has fallen. We will brook
No further violence. We are free men.
(all) The country's free.”

swissinfo, Daniele Papacella, Alexandra Richard and Dale Bechtel at the Hohle Gasse

In brief

The Hohle Gasse is located not far from the town of Küssnacht, a former Habsburg stronghold.

After escaping from Gessler’s men, William Tell headed to this road to ambush the Habsburg bailiff.

The Hohle Gasse Foundation plans to open an information centre next year at the entrance to the landmark.

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