Villa Iseh


Blessed with what must be one of the most spectacular views in the world, there is a house in Bali that has been a magnet for artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, ethnologists, politicians and royalty for more than eighty years. It rests in the Sidemen Valley, a spectacular greenbelt of rural farmland and terraced rice fields against the dramatic backdrop of the mighty Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest and holiest mountain and dwelling place of the gods. The spellbinding view of the volcano, together with the powerful spiritual energy that radiates from its slopes, has clearly been a constant source of inspiration for the famous residents and guests of this extraordinary property, which is now operated as a boutique hotel, known as Villa Iseh.

In 1937, Walter Spies, the illustrious German artist who settled in Bali from 1927 until his untimely death in 1942, built what he described as a “mountain hut” at Iseh in Karangasem. Adored by the Balinese, Spies was the co-founder of the Pita Maha artists’ cooperative, he shaped the development of Balinese art and established the Westerners’ image of Bali that still exists today.

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After living for nine years at the confluence of two rivers in Campuan, Spies grew weary of his increasingly hectic social life, and retired to the tranquil mountain retreat that was to become the setting of some of his most beautiful and atmospheric paintings, including ‘Iseh im Morgenlicht’ (Morning in Iseh, 1938).

Spies painting

Despite his desire to escape from a constant stream of visitors, Spies still used to receive guests at Iseh, including the Austrian novelist, Vicki Baum; musician, Colin McPhee; and Swiss artist, Theo Meier. When Hitler invaded Holland in 1940, all German nationals in Indonesia were arrested as enemy aliens, Spies was interned for twenty months, before meeting his death aboard a prisoner of war ship that was sunk by a Japanese bomb while crossing the Indian Ocean to Ceylon.

Unlike Spies, Theo Meier, as a citizen of a neutral country, received permission to stay in Bali. Although he spent much of his time in Thailand, he leased Spies’ mountain hut from the ruling princely Ksatriya family of Sidemen until his death in 1982. Like Spies, he entertained a great number of guests whenever they stopped over on the island; his pleasure and expertise in cultural matters, culinary delights and all things alcoholic, was almost as legendary as his artistic output. His distinguished visitors included Prince Sanidh Rangsit of Thailand, and Jean Paul Getty Jr, the wealthy American-born British philanthropist and book-collector, who apparently spent many hours of each day walking through the rice fields in an attempt to placate his troubled soul.

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It was in Iseh that Anna Mathews wrote her riveting novel, ‘The Night of Purnama’, a harrowing eyewitness account of the catastrophic eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963.

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The house was later home to the Florentine-born writer, Idanna Pucci, whose eminent guests included Yoko Ono; Mick Jagger, David Bowie, musicologist Ernst Schlager; and Swiss ethnologist Urs Ramseyer, author of ‘The Art and Culture of Bali’.

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A coveted photo album in the reception room tells the story of yet more celebrities who have enjoyed afternoon tea, cocktails, or alfresco dinners on the terrace, including the controversial film director, Roman Polanski, in 1987. There are photos of Mick Jagger in 1991; the sarong-clad David Bowie in 1995; and Mrs Megawati in 1998.

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Now an intimate hotel, managed by WHM, the single-storey villa is actually a series of linked pavilions, built in the traditional Balinese style, showcasing ornately carved pillars, antique doors, and shuttered windows. The reception room and three suites are lovingly furnished with custom-made tables, lamps, Kartini chairs, four-poster beds, elegant cabinets, and rich silk cushions and bedcovers, all in keeping with the style and era of the building. The use of bold colour is abundant both inside and out, ranging from a deep burgundy with grey accents, to a warm tangerine and green, to a sunny yellow and terracotta.

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The suites have been enhanced with the aural aesthetics of outdoor fountains and waterspouts, together with the practicalities of luxurious en-suite bathrooms. Large windows capture the mountain within painted frames. The Theo Meier Suite features a glorious green bathroom with a sunken jacuzzi tub, while in the bedroom, a wide mirror behind the bed reflects the mountain, ensuring that there is just no escaping that jaw-dropping vista.

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The antique tiled floors have been maintained and the original narrow tiled veranda has been replaced to accommodate a large, infinity-edge swimming pool bordered by a timber deck, in which holes have been cut to preserve the living trunks of sweet-scented frangipani trees.

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The Walter Spies Suite offers two double beds, one of which is situated upon a cosy mezzanine accessed via a floating staircase,

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while the garden-courtyard bathroom presents a view-soaked tub.

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An open-air passageway is adorned with bell jar lanterns. Koi ponds and outdoor terraces can be found at every twist and turn, the kitchen is located on a lower level, and dining takes place upon the deck or within the villa’s private verandas or bale relaxation pavilions.

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Anyone who stays at the property can expect every sense to be bombarded. Indeed, combined with the intense creative energy and spiritual force of Gunung Agung, it is not in the least bit unusual to feel the presence of Walter Spies or Theo Meier within this magical mountain retreat that they both loved so much.

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