The longest night I ever lived through in Switzerland was spent half way up a mountain in a barn, my head resting on a rough pillow several feet above a calving cow. Although 90 per cent of the population lives in the lowlands, the Swiss like to think of themselves as a mountain people, and therefore they celebrate all the trappings of rustic mountain life. When the idea of ‘sleeping in the straw’ came up, I took my cue from my enthusiastic Swiss friends and convinced myself it would be a fun thing to do.
It was a chair lift ride and half a day’s hike to get to the chalet where a farming couple were spending the summer looking after their herd of two dozen cows. We ate fondue outside and watched the sun set over the pre-Alps. I had to agree it was lovely. When we were shown to the accommodation upstairs – rough-hewn wooden bunks with the promised straw-filled mattresses and army blankets – I thought it could have been worse. I hadn’t taken vernacular Swiss architecture into account.
To keep everybody warm in winter, Swiss farmhouses traditionally integrated the family’s living quarters and the barn or cowshed under one roof. We were actually sleeping in the old hay loft, directly above the stall. This soon became clear from what I could smell through the gaps between the floorboards. One cow was being kept in for the night (I soon discovered why) while the rest were free to roam outside. When I resigned myself to the smell and the occasional sounds of snorting and stamping from downstairs, it seemed like sleep might be possible.
I awoke from a short and fitful sleep to distinctly more unhappy sounds coming from the cow below. I don’t know how many hours that poor cow was calving but I didn’t sleep a wink throughout. It did eventually come to an end and finally the light went out and the sound of lowing and voices was gone. All was not lost, I thought, dawn was still at least an hour off. I hadn’t reckoned on the morning milking, which started after what felt like a mere moment of shut-eye. First the whole house shook with the thundering of twenty-four sets of hooves on the wooden floor, and the clanging of twenty four cowbells, as the cows came in to be milked. Then the milking machine generator started up, also seemingly located directly under my bed, with its own penetrating noise. Eventually I was lulled back to sleep by the chugging – until it stopped. But then it was time for the cows to be let out, and the din of hooves started up again.
The next day I hurried down to the Central Swiss Plateau, glad to be back in the one of the most densely populated areas in Europe if it meant having modern conveniences and sleeping through the night.
The age-old tradition of taking herds up the mountains to the summer pastures is only maintained by a relatively small number of famers nowadays. Some 17,000 mountain farmers make the trek every year with 800,000 livestock, usually staying in simple chalets while they look after their animals, serve drinks to hikers, and make cheese or other farm produce. Where practical, herds or flocks are left alone, or in the care of sheepdogs.
An incredible two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains but my sleeping in the straw experience is the closest most Swiss get to mountain life in the land of Heidi, chalets and yodelling from alp to alp. To the Swiss who live in the lowlands, the mountains are their playground, a place to go skiing, hiking, paragliding or hunting. The fact is it is difficult to make a living up there. The majority of Alpine farmers rely on subsidies, and volunteers are drafted in to help with the summer harvest in a support programme organised by the charity Caritas. And the Swiss are loyal to their high-altitude brethren. The charity for hard-up mountain dwellers Schweizer Berghilfe (Swiss Mountain Aid) is one of the most popular in Switzerland for bequests. On the scientific front, the Swiss are global leaders in avalanche and glacier research. They also know a thing or two about hydroelectric power, since more than half of Switzerland’s electricity production comes from hydroelectric power generation.
This summer I summoned the courage to sleep in a mountain hut again, this one belonging to the family of a friend. First we had a hair-raising drive up a narrow winding road hewn out of the mountainside, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place whenever we met another car. Then came a long hike, up and up. There was no milking involved this time – the small herd left alone on our particular alp were too young – so I only had the spiders to worry about as I waited for morning to come. But I did have the pleasure of being first up and lighting the morning fire to heat water for breakfast, one of those age-old tasks that almost made me sentimental about mountain life. Have you ever tried sleeping on the straw? Or what is the equivalent where you come from? For those curious to try it, check out this Swiss agritourism website to find a farmhouse nearby. But if you prefer something more refined, why not try the room in the picture above at the Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in Emmental, canton Bern? I know I’m tempted.