Backpackers live like kings of the castle
While Switzerland may be one of the world’s most expensive countries, you do not necessarily have to be rich to live like a king here.
The country has a network of low-cost hostels and backpacker hotels, many of which are found in wonderful old buildings - even medieval castles.
The current lord of Rotberg Castle, Thomas Krämer, stirs a creamy tomato sauce while keeping a watchful eye on a small pot of pesto.
“I’m king of the castle, king of the kitchen and king of the toilets because it’s my job to clean them too,” he says smiling. “I have to do everything here, along with my wife - even the bookkeeping.”
The Krämers took over the 13th century castle three years ago, along with all the responsibilities that go with it.
The castle can sleep more than 80 people and is often fully booked with armies of schoolchildren, lone travellers and wannabe knights.
Exclusive accommodation at low prices has proved to be a winning combination for the Swiss Youth Hostels and association of Swiss Backpacker Hostels.
Prices start at SFr20 ($15) a night, and half board is often under SFr40.
What that gets you is a bed in a medieval castle, a 17th century customs building, a Belle Époque villa or a 500-year-old manor house (see “in brief” and “related sites”).
The settings are often as unique as the buildings themselves; perched above waterfalls, on lakeshores, in the middle of ancient towns or, like the Rotberg, on mountainsides.
Lords of Rotberg
Situated 15 kilometres southwest of Basel in the Jura mountains, the castle was built by the lords of Rotberg, who ruled their feudal lands from here for fewer than 100 years before leaving for more comfortable quarters in Basel town.
What followed were centuries of neglect and pillage. It was finally restored and turned into a youth hostel in the 1930s.
“Unfortunately, no records or plans of the original castle survived so it was rebuilt using a lot of imagination,” explains Krämer’s wife, Corina.
Unemployed youth from Basel were given the task of restoring it and successfully turned the ruin into a youth hostel with a medieval flair.
They added heavy doors festooned with wrought iron curlicues, used discarded old beams and posts to return dignity to the knight’s chamber and installed central heating for modern comfort.
“It was rebuilt as a youth hostel which makes it romantic but practical,” says Corina, as she operates a small cable lift, used to transport goods and luggage to the road far below.
There is a great density of old castles in this part of the Jura mountains.
From the Rotberg castle keep, you can see the fabulous ruin of Landskron just across the border with France.
In between is the sprawling Mariastein monastery (see story under “related items”) - a neo-Baroque jewel sitting above a ravine.
Just about the time when the lords of Rotberg were fleeing to Basel, a miracle took place on the monastery site that turned it into a place of pilgrimage.
As the monastery grew in importance, the community of monks eventually took possession of the Rotberg holdings, and deciding that the farm was more important than the castle, restored its buildings with stone blocks and other materials taken from the latter.
The monastery and castle are independent of each other once again; the former attracting 150,000 pilgrims a year, and the castle drawing those seeking a medieval experience.
“We used to live in a little apartment and never dreamt of living in a castle but now that we are here I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Thomas.
“I was sometimes scared the first year when we were here,” says Corina “when there was just the two of us in our castle apartment looking up at the big tower.”
“I didn’t want to go there alone, but I feel at home here now.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel at Rotberg Castle
There are nearly 60 youth hostels spread across the country.
The Swiss Backpackers association has more than 20 member hotels.
Heritage buildings converted into hostels and backpacker hotels are dotted across the country, including:
The Rotberg Castle. Built by the lords of Rotberg around the year 1200, it has served as a hostel for nearly 70 years, and has more than 80 beds.
The Schaffhausen hostel. The 16th century manor house overlooks the Rhine Falls and was immortalised in Hermann Hesse’s 1914 novel, Rosshalde.
Solothurn’s historic customs and trading house. Located in Solothurn’s old town, it was converted into a hostel nine years ago.
Hiking Sheep backpackers’ hotel, Leysin. Built in the 19th century when Leysin was an important health resort, the villa has 36 beds and is close to the village’s ski lifts.
Riviera Lodge, Vevey. The 19th century townhouse on the shores of Lake Geneva was completely renovated in 1997 and accommodates up to 60 people.
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