A stall to call your own— Swiss Schlaf im Stroh (aventure sur la paille)
Switzerland's "Sleep in the Straw"/"Adventures in the Hay" network of barn hostels
The Boy Scouts of Troop 116 prepare to bed down for the night in a Schlaf im Stroh barn in Gimmelwald, Switzerland.
Switzerland's Schlaf im Stroh ("Sleep in the Straw"—called "aventure sur la paille" in the French-speaking regions) network of 370+ barns is pretty straightforward.
In early spring, after they drive the cows up to the higher pastures, these farmers scour the stalls, lay down fresh hay, and rent out the straw-padded barn stalls to tourists and trekkers for the princely sum of 20 SF to 30 SF ($22 to $33)—half that much for kids under 15.
You get some woolen blankets (for padding beneath and covers above you), access to showers, and a simple breakfast the next morning.
What's it like to stay in a Swiss barn?
Since these are all private barns, they vary considerably in style. Some are literally just haylofts where you flop down like a hobo in your own little corner. Others resemble a bed-less hostel, with semi-private wooden stalls in a heated building and such facilities as a common-use kitchen and yard games (horseshoes, lawn darts, etc.) or even a pool out back.
Sometimes it's as rural as outhouses and cold showers, other times you knock politely on the farmer’s back door and cut through their kitchen to share the farmhouse bathroom. Some are in castles, most in clapboard barns.
Some have installed barbecue pits or even wood ovens for pizza. Many, indeed, will provide dinner at extremely reasonable rates (that one I took the boy scouts to did not, but our host did rouse her neighbor, who ran the local restaurant, and convinced here to open up out of season and lay us out a banquet of hearty Alpine fare).
Fair warning: All barns are shared facilities, sort of like the dorms in hostels, meaning the most privacy you might get will consist of the four-foot-high wooden walls of a cow stall. However, most barns only sleep up to 10 or 15 people, and the program is most popular with fun-loving families and youth groups, not rowdy party-hard singles. Still, since few barns offer sex-segregated sections, everyone is thrown in together—though it seems most farmers try to set aside one, slightly separate corner for women travelling alone.
As you would do for staying in a hostel, bring a sleep-sack, which is like an ultra-light sleeping-bag (really nothing more than a heavy-duty top sheet folded in half and sewn across the bottom and up one side). They’ll provide you with enough wool blankets to fold one under you for cushioning, the others to spread over you for warmth.
Breakfast is always included and is usually a country-simple continental affair of coffee, rolls, and, of course, the freshest milk it will probably ever be your joy to taste, but sometimes turn into sumptuous mini-feats of ham, sweet rolls, fresh juice, and Swiss cheese (naturally). Again, some barns will also prepare hearty lunches or dinners or put together a basket of picnic supplies for you (the Web site has icons denoting which ones offer meals).
Can I trust that the barns are clean?
The "Sleep in Straw" concept grew out of a 1993 initiative by farmers in the Jura canton who were catering to groups of horse trekkers. The idea caught on quickly, the local farm bureau standardized the affair, and within a year the program was spreading across Switzerland. By 1995, Switzerland's tourism authority was requesting an official brochure for this newly popular phenomenon, so the participants decided to incorporate into an official organization--though, this being Switzerland, it's still run by a group of farmers from the network.
The official organization now sends out inspectors to make sure each applicant farm has a barn that is in good shape, is clean and disinfected each spring, can provide fresh water (and fresh hay), and supplies adequate toilet and shower facilities. Member barns display an official cartoonish blue-green-and white out front.
But is sleeping in the straw comfortable?
If you have hay fever, no. But otherwise: incredibly so!
Before you go writing this whole idea off as loopy, consider this: I've stayed in just about every type of accommodation there is in Europe, from the top luxury hotels of Paris and London to sleeping in a doorway in Vienna (long story), and I'd have to say that one of the most comfortable night's sleep I've ever had was on a bed of straw in a barn halfway up the Schilthorn in the Swiss hamlet of Gimmelwald.
It's soft. It's comfy. It smells sweetly of fresh-mown hay. It's quiet. And it costs only twenty bucks, breakfast included. My kind of accommodation!
Are shlaf in stroh available year-round?
Schlaf im Stroh is available from mid-May until, well, 'til the cows come home--starting in mid-October, the farmers need the barn back to house the herd.
You can track down a Schlaf im Stroh at www.schlaf-im-stroh.ch.