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Swiss Nature Parks Celebrate the Land and People of Switzerland

June 4th, 2021

It takes a few gentle kicks and commands from Franz Lustenberger to rouse the cows for the 4:30 a.m. pre-dawn milking. Once his eleven cows are standing, Franz primes each nipple by producing a few jets of warm milk before attaching the milking machine to the overstretched udders.

Singlehandedly, he pours the creamy contents of the milking machine-about 12 liters per cow-into 40-liter milk cans. By 5:15 the cans containing the morning’s output are loaded onto a small cart and wheeled to a shed at the south side of the hilltop pasture. The shed houses the upper terminus of a tram system-a sort of ski lift for milk cans. Franz hoists the milk cans onto the bed of the tram cart and starts the drive wheel of the tram. In five minutes the tramload of milk has arrived at a transfer station over a kilometer away in the valley below. Within the hour Franz has milked the cows, shipped the milk, and fed the calves. Sunrise is still an hour away.

The patchwork of dairy farms stitched into the hills surrounding Entlebuch in the Swiss canton of Lucerne embody a traditional but rapidly disappearing lifestyle. It’s an area rich in history-the cradle of the Swiss confederation-and still steeped in the human enterprise that has distinguished Swiss farmers from the peasant class that fled much of Europe’s farmland over the past 150 years. Today, the Entlebuch Nature Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, showcases the land, culture, and traditional lifestyles of central Switzerland.

Entlebuch is Switzerland’s first regional nature park and protects a landscape where one third of the population still makes their living in agriculture. It is a prealpine paradise where you can explore wooded nature trails, immerse yourself in a traditional lifestyle, dine on freshly produced local foods, and sleep comfortably at local hotels or even in the straw as part of a farm stay-all for much less than you might shell out in Switzerland’s trendy resorts or spendy cities.

In addition to dairy farming, forestry and small-scale mining have been a traditional part of the Entlebuch landscape. The Gross Fontanne, a stream that undercuts the limestone cliffs of Napf Mountain, has been luring gold miners since the 15th century. Gsto (pronounced “Shtoe”) Watti, a descendant of those early miners, leads visitors on outings to pan for gold.

Each prospecting guest is outfitted with a shovel, a flare-sided pan, and a pair of rubber boots. Then Gsto wades into the stream and demonstrates how to dislodge the boulders to access the underlying sand and gravel where gold is most likely to be found. Shoveling the slushy gravel into the pan and leaning over to meticulously wash away the sand is backbreaking and painstakingly hard work. After an hour of shoveling gravel and panning I have three flecks which combined are far smaller than the head of a pin.

As I carefully drop my shimmering flecks into a small vial (which magnifies them to appear immensely larger than they really are), I notice a nugget about the size of a grain of wheat dangling from a chain around Gsto’s neck. It’s the total production from his best day ever-weighing about three grams and worth less than US$100, even at today’s lofty gold prices. My production is worth perhaps pennies, but it’s given me a fun, hands-on connection to the centuries of gold miners who followed the undeniable siren song of prospecting.

Back at the farm, Franz stands on his patio in front of a wood-fired brick oven and places spice-encrusted strips of pork onto the grill. He cuts into a large loaf of crusty bread and serves up a glass of fresh whole milk. Franz advises me that this is yesterday’s milk-good thing, since, according to Franz, milk consumed on the day it’s produced taste “cowey.”

When it’s time to hit the hay, try schlafen im Stroh, or sleeping in the straw-a popular option on a Swiss farm stay. Sure, more modern bedding is available in a dormitory above the large shed where Franz keeps his tractor, but the straw in the barn is clean and surprisingly comfortable. As I slip into bed, sandwiched between two blankets, I don’t feel any of the prickliness I first expected. But I do want to be asleep by 10:00-after all, I need to be up at 4:30 to milk the cows.

Need to know

Entlebuch Nature Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has become a model for sustainable tourism in Europe. It is one of 20 Regional Nature Parks in Switzerland protecting over 15 percent of Switzerland’s land.

How to get there: Entlebuch is in the Lake Lucerne region, about 30 minutes southwest of Lucerne by train. The nine villages within the park are served by the Swiss PostBus system.