Hay fever. Animal allergies. Arachnophobia. Sensitive skin. I should have paid more attention to my personal hindrances before saying that I liked the sound of sleeping in the hay barn at Wolfseggstall, a small organic farm in Austria’s eastern Tirol. It looked so winsomely appealing on the tourist board website, with images of cherub-cheeked poppets in toddler-size lederhosen beaming from neat piles of golden hay. What great fun for all the family! What an antithesis to modern life!
But in the gloaming outside the more practical than romantic-looking barn, I was having second thoughts. The farmer pulled back the doors to reveal a tractor surrounded by mounds of hay and cobwebs, so many cobwebs that they hung down in grassy clumps like Spanish moss. The scent of diesel mingled with the pong of the pigs. Sylvia, our farmer host, laughed, “Oh yes, there are spiders here, probably thousands of them!”
Our eyes grew wide. I asked our kids, aged two and four, if they would like to sleep there. “Never, ever!” So I was left to politely reverse out of the situation and agree that we’d spend all our nights, as booked, in our apartment in the farm’s cute chalet-style guesthouse.
So the bucolic joy of sleeping in a hay barn was not for us – although Sylvia and her husband Georg insisted lots of older children adore it, spending night after night on the bales. But there were plenty of other reasons to come to this lovely little farm.
Set on grassy slopes below the striking massif of the Wilder Kaiser – a mountain chain whose crags are said to resemble the profiles of past kaisers – this small-scale homestead fulfilled our desire for a relaxing break in a gorgeous setting, with a few animals and farm activities to entertain the kids.
There was a shed of pigs to feed (“too stinky!”), a pony to ride (“bit scary!”), eggs to collect from the hens (very exciting), and countless rabbits and guinea pigs for petting, stroking and possibly a bit too much squeezing. A complete immersive Old Macdonald experience this was not, but we are not massive animal people, so it was enough.
Those yearning for a more full-on farm stay with all the manure mucking, butter churning and trotter fiddling that might entail will find a huge choice in Urlaub am Bauernhof , the Austria-wide collection of 2,350 audited farm stays.
We opted for farming-lite, spending the first afternoon (and many more, too) on the long veranda, letting the sunshine and good Austrian white wine sink into our souls while the youngsters made circuits of the swings and sand pit, the ride-on tractors and the ropes dangling from apple trees, wandering over occasionally to speak to Flora the pony or giggle at the stinky pigs.
In truth our apartment, in a separate building to the family’s old chalet, was rather plain and functional, but a great breakfast of the farm’s own bread, cheese, milk and eggs was served in the communal dining room, and it was a jolly base for ventures into what is a fantastic region for families.
We were just outside the small resort of Going (yeah, all the jokes), which with neighbouring Ellmau, Scheffau and Soll make up the Ski Welt ski area in winter, with Kitzbühel not far away. The Wilder Kaiser may lack the high peaks of the western Alps, but its silvery limestone faces, skirted by pine forest, have a dramatic beauty, and in a brilliant stroke, the region has built nature-based amusement parks at the tops of the ski lifts to entice summer visitors.
We rode Ellmau’s cable car to 1,555 metres to play at Ellmi’s Zauberwelt (a name our kids still chant with excitement seven months on). It’s an extensive playground of slides, sand, diggers, water play and a spooky treasure trail with audio effects.
Likewise, Söll has Hexenwasser, a witch- and water-themed park where broomsticks replace skis in the gondola ski racks on the way up. We abandoned our shoes to follow a barefoot trail across the mountain, hobbling over pebbles, squelching through troughs of oozy mud and paddling through streams, trying to get the kids to skip at least some of the 60 water play features.
Substantial parenting efforts made, we rewarded ourselves with beers at the mountain inns, and even these had the kids’ interests at heart. At home, a child-friendly pub might mean minimal broken glass on the floor and some bashed-up board games, but the Wochenbrunn was a real bobby dazzler. Handily located above our farm, it had deer, mechanical tractors to ride, a chalet playhouse, a massive trampoline, and a climbing wall.
We oldsters sat on the sunny terraces overlooking the valley, guzzling pitchers of beer and plates of Käsespätzle (cheesy noodles) and Kaiserschmarren (fluffy shredded pancakes). Can this be transported back to Peckham please? My life would be much improved.
One thing we do have in Peckham – or a few miles away at the Horniman Museum’s animal walk – is llamas, but being handed a lead to take our very own beast for a walk from Koglhof llama farm was a very different prospect. Disobedient but with irresistible Disney eyelashes and fluffable fur, Samba was gorgeous enough to get the kids to complete a two-hour group llama trek into the forested foothills, which didn’t look so different from a Peruvian hilltop that misty day.
Perhaps we could be animal people after all. We had certainly learned to appreciate trips back to the farm to pat the animals as relaxed interludes within jam-packed days. After dinner we would take dark walks under the stars before falling asleep in the warm air, listening to moos and neighs – but undisturbed by ticklish dreams of tarantulas or the sound of sneezing.
• The trip was provided by the Tirol tourist board. The Wolfseggstall farm’s two-bedroom apartments start at €38pp per night (four sharing), excluding meals. For details of this and other Austrian farm stays visit farmholidays.com. The nearest airport/train station is Munich, a 90-minute drive away. Car hire was provided by Sixt . For more information, see visittirol.co.uk, austria.info and wilderkaiser.info
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