Visitors to Germany often overlook the countryside, focusing instead on the richness of the cities. Why bother with little Schierke (population: 950) and the Rübeland caves when one can have the towers of Frankfurt or underground Berlin? But tourists who visit urban areas alone miss the greater part of the country. Germany is vast, covering more than 350,000 square kilometres, 83% of which is still forested or farmed. It boasts mountains and moors, glacial flats and wetlands, hundreds of miles of sandy beaches, 13 biosphere reserves and 104 nature and national parks.
Mrs. Cat’s heart – like that of our 13-year-old Golden Retriever Tess – is in the countryside. Over our first two years in Berlin we’re wheeled our bicycles deep into the Spreewald and around the Brandenburg lakes. We’ve swum in the Havel, Müggelsee and Krumme Lanke. We’ve sledded in Staaken. We’ve ventured out of town to Heidelberg, Munich and Dresden. But we’ve all but skipped rural Germany. I can’t remember when I last saw a cow.
So last week we rented a car and set out for the Great Outdoors. We swept through bucolic Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, dipped our toes into the Mürnitz See, idled away an afternoon at Schwerin’s magnificent Schloss, and ended up Schleswig-Holstein, about 300 miles across the North Sea from Norfolk. Our final destination was the ‘Holstein Switzerland’ nature park, a rural patchwork of lakes and forest, aristocratic estates and historic farms set in gently rolling landscape which once reminded someone of Switzerland. We trekked along its nature park trails, built sandcastles and rented a Canadian canoe to explore the Großer Plöner See.
But the high point of the holiday was rolling in the hay. Heuhotel – or hay hotels -- are a new trend in Germany. Across the country farmers are converting their barns and outlying buildings into communal, green accommodation. Visitors are offered beds of straw rather than duvets and linen, and find themselves snoozing alongside as many as a dozen fellow travellers.
Mrs. Cat, our son Maus and Tess the Golden Retriever drove between fields of ripened corn to Hof Hainböst, one of Schleswig-Holstein’s original hay hotels. In 1996 the farm’s owners, Achim and Anne Schütt, hit upon the idea of converting their barn into a country hostel.
‘I was a teacher at a school for handicapped children,’ Anne told me. ‘My husband Achim was an educator at a young people’s care home. When we bought the farm the cowshed was full of old machinery. We cleared it out and – after a long period negotiating for planning permission – opened our HeuHotel.’
At first Achim and Anne brought city children to the farm on day courses, allowing them to run free (under the supervision of other teachers).
‘We set no programme for the children, allowing them to find their way back into nature,’ she explained.
In time adults also discovered the picturesque location, and began spending the night. The Schütts then started to host weddings at the farm – with the newly-weds spending their nuptial night in the barn.
‘But usually without the other guests,’ Anne explained with a smile.
We had arranged to meet British friends at the farm and – as soon as we arrived – the children fell out of the cars and started running. They peered into chicken coops and rabbit hutches, chased long-necked geese into the pond and collected blackberries and eggs. They didn’t stop moving or shouting even as they leaped into their sleeping bags. Eventually they collapsed on the soft, clean hay.
Hay hotels are especially popular with cyclists but luckily we had the barn to ourselves. And despite worries that we would awake with backs in knots and nerves frayed, all enjoyed the finest night’s sleep in ages. No bugs. No allergic reactions. And happy children (plus one ecstatic dog) crowding around the refectory tables eating a hearty country breakfast.
Now back in Berlin our clothes and pillows smell of dry hay and fresh air. These days there are hundreds of hay hotels across Germany. I am a city-dweller, but after last week it won’t be long until Mrs. Cat and I (along with Maus and Tess) are rolling in the hay again.
Donnerstag, 19. August 2010
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