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Farmhouse stay takes leaf out of old book

As old as the house is the maple tree that stands over it

(swissinfo.ch)

Who has never wondered what life was like for their ancestors? swissinfo's Dale Bechtel got the chance to find out when he stayed in a 250-year-old farmhouse.

I must admit, I was a keen viewer of the reality television show aired a couple of years ago featuring a family who exchanged their modern lifestyles for those of 19th century peasants.

That's why I jumped at the chance when I saw the tourist board in the Emmental region of canton Bern offering stays in old farmhouses, trying to capitalise on the show's popularity.

I chose to stay in a creaky old wooden house outside the village of Schangnau. There would be no running water or electricity. I informed my wife, but decided to keep our two children in the dark.

Revealing too many details would spoil the surprise, and they are still at the tender age – ten and eight – when surprises are like birthday presents. At the very least, I thought, they can't protest against the unknown.

Dozens of families in the Emmental countryside applied to have their homes included on the list of places where you can "Spend a Night in Gotthelf's Time".

Jeremias Gotthelf was the 19th century pastor-turned-author whose realistic portrayals of life in rural Emmental have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, leading to the reality TV show.

One of the criteria is that the farmhouses selected must display a number of Gotthelf's works on their bookshelves. That, I discovered after a conversation in advance with Ruth Zemp of the Emmental tourist board, was the easy part.

Neglected

The facilities, Zemp told me, must be limited to a jug of water and bowl for washing, and bedpans for late night emergencies. The furniture needed to be authentic, as did the uneven floorboards and petrol lamps. Only three of the 40 houses submitted had actually been neglected long enough to make the grade.

She failed to mention the barking dog and the pungent smell of manure that greeted us upon our arrival. The reality was that we had booked into a working farm, not a museum.

And it was the animals that ended up being the most pleasant surprise for the kids; cows, goats, rabbits, and newborn kittens.

The dark house that was to be our home for the night was built in 1768, about the time my own ancestors left Switzerland for good. Would my forefathers have banged their head as many times as I did on the beam above the low entrance?

Rosmarie Stettler runs the farm today along with her husband and son and she explained that the simple structure was originally built beside the main house as the cheese storage shed, and was eventually extended by two rooms to accommodate farm hands.

But for the past few decades, it had been unoccupied, becoming a cluttered storehouse for a variety of old, discarded items the family could not part with.

Wooden nails

Among them were two short beds. The wooden nails holding the one together, she said, revealed as much about its age as did the year "1839" decorously engraved on the other. The linen was authentic, and the mattresses were rectangle lumps filled with cornhusks. I was sure this would keep us awake all night thinking about what life was really like in Gotthelf's Emmental.

More on the comfortable side of the 19th century was the meal we treated ourselves to in the nearby restaurant, Kemmeriboden Bad. When the pastor was writing his chronicles, wealthy travellers would come here to bathe in its natural springs.

The hotel complex today has maintained its rustic façade and traditional dining room. The main "Gotthelf" course I ordered consisted of pork schnitzel and a slice of farmer's ham dripping with melted Emmental – or Swiss – cheese. Roast potatoes were served on the side.

"They knew how to cook well in Gotthelf's time, and enjoyed down-to-earth meals," explained Heiner Invernizzi whose family has run the establishment for around 150 years.

"They ate a lot of pork, preferring to sell their veal because they got a good price for it. In those days, the farmer, his wife and their farmhands would have sat round the table and eaten from the same plate or platter."

There was no fumbling for the light switch upon our return to the house, but a desperate search for matches to ignite the petrol lamp. Stettler had prepared heavy tin flasks - the Gotthelf version of the hot water bottle - steaming and ready for use.

Once in bed, the cornhusks formed round our bodies like sand and our sleep was unexpectedly sound. We were awoken by daylight streaming into the room. It was raining, and the air was fresh.

Our breakfast of homemade bread, sausage, cheese, jam and coffee led to a discussion with our children over the absence of cornflakes and orange juice in the 19th century Swiss diet, and what this and the short beds may have said about the people of that time.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Schangnau

Key facts

Jeremias Gotthelf was the pseudonym of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854).
Bitzius, who worked as pastor in the Emmental, took an active interest in the education and economic improvement of the rural population.
Many of his 38 volumes of prose were written in dialect.
Best known are "Ueli, the Farmhand" (1840) and "The Black Spider" (1842).

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In brief

The marketing organisation, Pro Emmental, lists three 19th century farmhouses where tourists can spend the night. They are in or near the villages of Schangnau, Landiswil and Fankhaus.

The special offer was created to capitalise on the success of the 2004 reality television show, Living In Gotthelf's Time, which drew a huge audience.

Pro Emmental's Ruth Zemp says she is pleased with the strong demand since the offer was launched last year. "Such peace and quiet and authenticity is a luxury nowadays. It's the kind of experience more and more people are looking for."

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