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Not just any room with a mountain view

Fresh air replaces air-conditioning in the cornfield room (Ranch Farsox)

Lacking much of a tourist industry, the picturesque villages between Davos and St Moritz have taken an unconventional approach to attract vistors.

Water and Bread is a listing of unique places to stay in the Albula Valley,including livestock stables, seniors' residences and haunted houses.

As you step into the Bellaluna restaurant you enter the scene of a crime. Just inside the door, the restaurant owner and local legend, Paula Roth, was murdered.

It has been nearly 20 years since her brutal death at the hands of thieves. The bloodstains were scrubbed away long ago but Paula's spirit is still omnipresent (see video).

The brothers Brazerol bought the old building a few years ago, carried out extensive renovations, and turned it into a fine-dining restaurant, trendy nightclub and shrine to her memory.

"Without her, the Bellaluna would not have been possible – we would never have taken on this venture," says Bruno Brazerol.

Legendary

Paula's fiery temperament, odd humour and peculiar habits made her a legend in her own time. A public outcry would have ensued if the authorities had tried to close the restaurant on sanitary grounds or for selling alcohol without a licence.

Her naïve oil paintings, curious papier-mâché heads and framed poems decorate the Bellaluna's walls.

It was Paula's colourful story that qualified the Bellaluna for inclusion in the Water and Bread project, and why I chose to stay there.

"It's conceived for complicated people, or better said, complicated holidays for uncomplicated people, because you have to sleep in unusual places, or places with fascinating histories like the Bellaluna," explains Brazerol.

Cornfield bed

Brazerol and the other initiators of the project boast that air conditioning is included if you book the "bed-in-a-cornfield", one of the other 11 places where you can spend the night. They describe the air conditioning as a "fresh northerly or southerly breeze flavoured with a scent of earth".

Water and bread (hence the project name) comes with the prisoner's pyjamas you get for your night in the medieval jail cell in the village of Bergun.

Elsewhere, the cow stable high above the village of Tiefencastel is converted into a room with stunning views of the mountains and villages dotting the valley.

You sleep on cushions of hay, beneath warm wool duvets in a stall that has been spotlessly cleaned out to make it inhabitable for two-legged occupants. People take over when the cows vacate for the summer and head out to alpine pastures.

"It is the simplicity of the accommodation, combined with the beautiful surroundings," says livestock owner, Arthur Albertine, explaining the strong demand.

Gypsy wagon

"We wanted to do something different to promote tourism in the region," adds Erika Brenn, president of the Water and Bread association. Brenn and her husband run an organic beef farm in the bucolic village of Stierva.

The Brenns do not provide bed and breakfast in their farmhouse but accommodation in a painted wagon, the kind I always romantically associate with gypsies and circuses.

The morning meal is not included in the price, but meat, mushrooms and syrup can be bought directly from the farm, and other provisions can be had at the village shop close by.

"We live in a remote village, and contact with outsiders is very important for us for several reasons," explains Brenn.

"It's important for our children's development, helps us become more open-minded and to market our products as well."

The scenery in this eastern part of the country is arguably as beautiful as any region in the Swiss Alps – with one big advantage: it has been spared the usual scars left on the landscape by tourist infrastructure such as hotel and apartment complexes and ski lifts.

If not thriving, the villages are at least intact and many still have their own schools and shops. The region is serviced by the Rhaetian Railways and buses run to even the most remote mountain community.

But the best way to explore the area is on foot, using the excellent network of hiking trails to walk village-to-village – and from one Water and Bread bed to the next.

Wheelchair accessible

Without a doubt, the Envia home is the most comfortable accommodation on the list with round-the-clock service.

The room in the old folks' home is equipped with an electronically controlled bed, a phone with big touchtone numbers and a bathroom large enough to negotiate in a small tank – or at least a wheelchair.

It is also full of people who can tell you a thing or two about the region's history.

"She wasn't easy to characterise," recalls 87-year-old George Janett of Paula Roth. "She was very original and had her ups and downs. She wasn't afraid to kick customers out of the restaurant, and would sometimes use her gun to scare people away."

I have dinner late in the Bellaluna, and flip through a richly illustrated biography on Paula.

"You must read the chapter describing the murder before you turn in," says the waitress with a wry smile.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Filisur

Key facts

Prices range from SFr20 ($16) for a night in the cornfield to SFr95 for the room in the seniors' residence.
The accommodation is located in and around the Albula valley.
The valley's main railway and road junction, Tiefencastel, is two hours from Zurich by train, changing in Chur.
A three-day post bus pass to explore the region costs SFr40.

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