Grosses Walsertal, a dramatic, V-shaped valley cloaked in forests of ash, beech, fir and lush Alpine meadows of herbs and wild flowers, offers one of the clearest examples of the traditional respect there is for nature throughout rural Austria. Indeed, it was on account of the role its inhabitants play in maintaining its stunning mountainous landscape that the region was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000.
UNESCO recognised that the key to this finely balanced relationship has always been dairy farming which the Walser inhabitants have practised ever since emigrating from Switzerland in the 13th century. “Living here as a farmer is living in a circle, working in a circle,” says Kurt Stark, who manages a traditional dairy in the village of Sontagg and comes from a long line of dairy farmers. “And as long as we keep rearing our cattle and making cheese, we will always have our beautiful meadows.”
Whereas in many parts of the world protecting nature is about fencing people out, in Grosses Walsertal the farmers effectively act as landscape gardeners, he explains. “In the summer months, we work hard to manage the high alpine meadows so that our cattle have the best environment in which to graze.” This work involves removing seedlings to make sure the forest doesn’t encroach and clearing away rocks and boulders that come down during the winter. It certainly seems to pay off. In some of the high pastures, scientists have identified more than 80 different species of wild flower, herbs and grasses in every square metre.
This diversity in turn supports the local culture. “There is marvelous depth of flavour and a richness in the milk produced by cows grazing up in the high meadows in the summer,” says Elizabeth Burtscher, who has lived in the region for more than 50 years. “And you can taste this in the special character of the butter, yoghurt and cheese that we produce here in the valley. It’s like the difference between making a soup with a potato and some salt, and making it with 20 different types of herbs and vegetables.”
Burtscher is one of a growing number of women in the valley who, with the support of UNESCO, have been reviving another traditional practice: herbalism. Burtscher runs Berg Tee, which sells wonderful herbal tea blends, and offers tours to visitors interested in collecting herbs and wild flowers for their own blends. And the Alchemilla Project is a cooperative of herbalists who make a variety of cosmetic and therapeutic products, including balms, oils and tinctures, as well as foods and drinks. “The biosphere reserve has helped us retain our natural and cultural heritage here in the valley by supporting the small dairies. So the farmers can continue to graze their cattle and manage the landscape, which in turn means we still have these wonderful meadows full of our beautiful wild flowers and herbs.”
The Grosses Walsertal inhabitants are especially proud of their convent, St. Gerold, which has a guesthouse offering accommodation for 60 people. The convent also caters to those in need with the "Oasis 2000" project by financing their holidays. St. Gerold aspires to be a place to meet and communicate and therefore has no television. Horses play an important role in horse therapy methods as well as conventional horseback riding. Workshops and seminars are organised around several themes such as dance, Zen Buddhism, the Feldenkrais method and fasting. When staying at St. Gerold, the neighbouring village of Marul is also worth a visit, where all farmers have converted to organic farming.
EDEN stands for the European Destinations of Excellence, a project promoting sustainable tourism development across the European Union. The project is based on national competitions which take place each year and result in the selection of a tourist “destination of excellence” for each participating country. The Grosses Walsertal Biosphere Park won this highly accomplished award for 2009.
Through the selection of destinations, EDEN effectively achieves the objective of drawing attention to the values, diversity and common features of European tourist destinations. It enhances the visibility of emerging European destinations, creates a platform for sharing good practices across Europe, and promotes networking between awarded destinations. The key feature of the selected destinations is their commitment to social, cultural and environmental sustainability. The recipients of the award are emerging, little known European destinations located in the 27 Member States and candidate countries. The EDEN project helps to spread the sustainable practices used in the chosen destinations across the Union and to turn these places into year-round venues.
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