Lungau: The once-hidden region that flaunts its green credentials in the Austrian Alps

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

What does Alpine Lungau have in common with the Amazon and Florida’s Everglades? It too is a designated a biosphere reserve. Mark Rowe visits a remarkable corner where conservation rules

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.”

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Flights to Salzburg are available on British Airways from Gatwick (0844 493 0787; and Ryanair from Stansted (0871 246 0000;

Staying there

Mark Rowe stayed at St Martin Eco Lodge Chalets (00 43 664 496 1502; 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.

More information

Salzburger Lungau and Kärntner Nockberge Biosphere Reserve:

Austrian Tourism:

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor