For most of us, 3.30am is a time rarely seen unless we are working a night shift or feeding a baby. More pleasurable, I think, as we ease ourselves dozily out of a minibus above a snoring out-of-season ski resort, to stir yourself for a dawn walk in the Austrian Alps.
We hike up the flanks of a mountain whose contours we can feel but not see. Our party is silent – perhaps sleepwalking – so we hear the drill of a black woodpecker and the bark of a female deer. We reach our viewing point, the half-light now turning the grove of yew trees from grey to pale green, revealing a large herd of cream and yellow milking cows. Their jangling bells sound like a steel band come to welcome in the sunrise. The air is scented with the aromas of vanilla orchids and hyacinths, bursting with perfumes at first light. The cattle are clearly bursting too and soon we are edging around the silhouettes of freshly laid cowpats.
Then the sun begins to bleed over the fabulously large and jagged peaks of the Lower Tauern Alps, cutting diamond-sharp shadows across the valley. A waning moon just squeezes into the same photoframe. This drama is staged on Tschaneck mountain, 60 miles south of Salzburg, but in reality we are nowhere near anywhere, for this is a forgotten corner of Austria, known as the Lungau.
Despite its anonymity, Lungau is pretty special. Don’t take my word for it: last year it became Europe’s newest Biosphere Reserve (the full name – deep breath please – is the Salzburger Lungau and Kärntner Nockberge Biosphere Reserve). This designation by Unesco puts Lungau in a select club that includes large chunks of the Amazon, Mount Kenya and Florida’s Everglades, whose biosphere zones highlight the wildlife and landscapes they contain but also the way they are managed, with an emphasis on traditional or low-impact, rather than intensive methods of farming.
Before tunnels were bored through the Alps in the 1970s, the only easy way into the Lungau was from the east. From all other directions you would negotiate hazardous mountain passes historically barricaded by wolves, bears, brigands and terrifically foul weather. “The map of Lungau looks like a hand, but a hand with seven fingers,” explains Jodi, my enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. “Each of these ‘fingers’ is a valley that heads north from the glacial plains.”
Three mountain ranges represent the fingernails, so to speak: the rolling green Nockberge to the south; to the north and west are the Low and High Tauern, a wonderfully chaotic jumble of jagged limestone peaks and more craggy igneous rocks. Everywhere, conifers cling to the slopes at impossibly steep angles.
Ranging from 600m on the valley floor to the highest peaks at nearly 3,000m, Lungau has a bewilderingly vast and eclectic range of landscapes, from marsh and alluvial forests in the valleys to cultivated meadows, peat bogs and woodland areas at higher altitudes and glaciers. Within are golden eagles and bearded vultures, while black bears are occasionally spotted and wolves may be poised to move into the biosphere. Pesticides are hardly used and there are huge colonies of bees in every valley.
Churches stand high above, sternly guarding their villages. The most spectacular is St Leonhard’s, a pilgrim church made from sandstone with a gorgeous wrought-iron and gold-leaf gate, including intricate depictions of the Devil, griffins and other creatures. In the south transept is a stained-glass window inlaid with gold that points towards Lungau’s sometimes wealthy past. One of the more unusual trades – though an immensely profitable one – was castration: Lungau’s skilled animal castrators, or Sauschneider, travelled right across the Austro-Hungarian empire returning with their pockets full of gold.
Lungau’s isolation lends it lots of advantages. A distinctive local dialect and culture of self-sufficiency have emerged . If the world ended tomorrow, Lungau would probably continue untroubled, living off its cheeses, hams, speck (a delectable variation of pork cured in garlic and pepper, smoked over juniper) and germknodel – tennis-ball sized dumplings filled with prunes and topped with icing sugar.
Farmers and villagers still do many chores, such as gathering hay or washing windows, according to the Moon’s phases. But isolation has its downside too: I pass a recently erected memorial documenting the once popular pastime of witch burning, which unofficially is said to have gone on into the 19th century.
I base myself in the village of St Martin, positioned in the middle of the palm of Lungau’s hand. There’s a collection of chalets here, run by Jodi and her partner Herby, who also works as a local guide and ranger. Herby is helping to develop an ebike and ecar hire scheme, with charging points now found in unlikely distant corners of Lungau’s valleys. Meanwhile, cottages are powered by solar energy and plant oil; the garden and pond are surrounded by native herbs and flowers that you can pick and either add to your dinner or use to scent your chalet. Fresh rolls are delivered to your door every morning.
One morning, Jodi and I take a hike up the Lessach valley, the most easterly finger of Lungau. The walking is beautiful and we slowly ascend from 1,300m past gushing waterfalls, torrential streams and ever steeper cliffs to a col at 1,900m known as the Gollinganger. We are standing on the rim of a vast drained pudding-shaped glacial lake that in turn lifts your gaze upwards to the Hochgolling, a classic Alpine peak touching 2,800m.
The wildflowers are staggering, like a walk-in Impressionist painting. Bearded bluebells, gentians, cornflowers and red campion (in the local dialect this is translated as “donkey fart”) deck the fields. These flowers have given rise to an unusual regional celebration, known as the Prangstangen. In late June, the villagers of the Lungau decorate eight-metre hay poles in tightly bound wildflowers that snake upwards to their tips. These poles are then balanced in the pouches of lederhosen worn by unmarried men and paraded through the streets. The tradition is said to have originated in the Middle Ages, when the valley was plagued by locusts and it was only the inedible flowers that forced the locusts to take their destruction elsewhere.
Along the way we pass several alms – a combination of meadows, smallholdings and wooden top-heavy huts. These were once dwellings for summer shepherds, but are now popular retreats for hikers and tourists. They often sit on the dense network of walking paths that have developed from the movements of itinerant shepherds. Down the valley, we stopped to refuel at Lenzenhutte, a converted alm managed by the friendly Franz, who has lived all his life in the valley. Franz serves us soup filled with shredded pancake (nicer than it sounds) followed by giant pancake stuffed with raisins (well, walking at altitude is hungry work).
Some alms are more homespun than others and because the cows eat different kinds of grass and every alm has an ancient secret family recipe, the cheese in every one is different. At one alm I accept the offer of a cup of buttermilk, a rawer, more pungent version of what I’ve drunk back home, which I imagine tastes like cows’ udders. One cheesemaker, Erwin Bauer in the tiny hamlet of Gruben, has cottoned on to modern trends and sells more fancy cheeses including a soft round concoction flavoured with pine needles, which deserves to catch on. His shop looks like a film set for Wallace and Gromit, with dozens of huge rounds of cheeses stacked on shelves from ceiling to floor.
The biosphere designation is triggering all sorts of environmental projects. Among the more eye-catching is an “Eat the Alps” scheme, which aims to regenerate many of Lungau’s glorious meadows that are, at present, suffocated by pine trees.
“The key is to introduce sheep to graze the scrub trees, stopping them [the pines] from maturing,” explains Herby. “That will let the native vegetation, the flowers, grow. But to do that you need to persuade farmers to have more sheep and encourage local people and tourists to eat them.”
Lungau is easily loveable, mainly because it is a place of quiet local self-sufficiency, with scenic backdrops on all sides. Joining the biosphere club may stiffen local resolve to keep things that way. “People here would worry that the rest of the world was going one way and we were going the wrong way, going backwards,” says Herby. “But we are going in the right direction, with local and regional food and a strong sense of identity. People should see it as a big chance – make yourself rare and people start looking at you. The rest of the world will follow.”
Mark Rowe stayed at St Martin Eco Lodge Chalets (00 43 664 496 1502; holidaystoaustria.com). Prices start at €120 (£102) per night for a four-bed apartment and €150 (£128) for a six-bed chalet, on a self-catering basis.
Salzburger Lungau and Kärntner Nockberge Biosphere Reserve: unesco.org
Austrian Tourism: austria.info/uk