West of Lucerne: Hikes in Swiss biosphere offer watchable wildlife

By LEAH LARKIN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 25, 2012

“Ouch! That hurts.”

In my hand was an ant, an oversize specimen that appeared to have been on steroids.

“It’s OK to pick these ants up. Their bite cannot penetrate our tough skin,” guide Christian Wittker said. Sorry, Christian, the big bug in my hand obviously had strong choppers.

We were on a nature hike in UNESCO’s Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve near Lucerne in central Switzerland. Wittker had led us to an anthill several decades old and home to Switzerland’s largest ants.

The biosphere, in a region called the “Wild West of Lucerne,” includes 44 highland moors, 61 marshes and four expanses of moorland landscape. The trails are well-marked, or you can follow a guide, as I did with friends, who will lead you off the path for in-depth exploration of the fascinating terrain in this pre-Alpine region.

We were in the Moorlands Salwiden, not far from the town of Flühli. As we trekked barefoot on soggy ground, our feet sank in the soft mud. Wittker pointed out spiders that walk on water and picked up a mini frog. He showed us carnivorous plants with leaves that secrete a liquid to trap insects.

He said moss is the most important plant and grows very deep through the years because it does not decompose.

“Here we’re probably standing on 2 meters of moss,” he said. “There are places where it’s 7 meters deep. It can be 2,000 years old.” Trees in the region, however, grow very slowly because the soil has few nutrients.

I was intrigued with the Schachtelhalm plant. If one of its branches breaks, it can automatically glue itself back together. In the time of the dinosaurs, these plants grew to be 31 meters high, our guide said.

Back on the trail, we cleaned the gooey mud from our feet, put shoes back on and headed to the valley for a hearty lunch.

Hiking among grandiose peaks is a national pastime in Switzerland. It’s also popular with many visitors who set off on strenuous treks to mountain summits. Along the routes are huts where you can spend the night or enjoy an outdoor lunch surrounded by splendid scenery. The less ambitious can opt for leisurely hikes by riding a cable car to the heights, then hiking down. And, there are plenty of enjoyable walks at lower elevations, such as the biosphere hike, that won’t leave you huffing and puffing.

Another easy trek led us to a curious wellness facility. We left the village of Flühli and followed the Schwandalpweiher trail to the Kneippanlage with six water treatment stations. Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) was a Bavarian priest and a founder of the Naturopathic movement in medicine. He developed the “Kneipp Cure,” a type of hydrotherapy.

Here on the slopes, surrounded by stunning scenery and tall pines, you can try some of his treatments, albeit in mountain water with temperatures between 30 degrees and 60 degrees Farenheit. Kneipp believed the application of the icy water would boost the immune system and improve circulation. At one station, visitors shed their shoes, roll up their pant legs, step into a very chilly pond and prance around like storks, raising their legs high. The temperature change on the legs, from the frigid water to the warm air, is said to do wonders for a person’s well-being.

At another station, use a hose to gush the glacial water on your face, first across the forehead, then down each cheek. This “beauty gush” is said to minimize wrinkles and help those suffering from headaches. Visitors also can use the hose on knees and arms. Yet another water station is for the feet. At the end, there are lounge chairs where you can dry out and rest in the sun while pondering the majestic scenery. It’s all a delightful and refreshing experience.

We were lucky to be in Switzerland in September, the season for the Alpabfahrt, the jolly festival to greet the cows as they return from their mountain pastures every autumn. Our visit to the biosphere region ended with the Alpabfahrt in the town of Sörenberg-Schüpfheim.

Cows and farmers depart the mountain pastures about 7 a.m. for the 40-kilometer (about 25-mile) trip down the mountain. The bovines, all with big bells clanging around their necks and many decorated with wreaths of flowers and ribbons, are paraded to the valley where huge crowds greet and photograph them. The cows follow the farmer who owns them, with family members decked out in mountain costumes also following along.

“The cows know the way,” a local resident told me. “When farmers start preparations for the descent, the cows know they will get to go home. They want to go home.”

There’s even a contest to guess how fast the cows will walk down, with contestants guessing the arrival times of different groups.

Stands along the parade route sell snacks and souvenirs. Groups of musicians, including some blowing long Alphorns, provide entertainment .

The Alpabfahrt in Sörenberg-Schüpfheim will take place this year on Sept. 22. These lively celebrations are scheduled in some 60 to 80 Swiss towns.

Leah Larkin lives in France and can be contacted through her website, leahlarkin.com, or blog address, http://talesandtravel.com.


Know and Go

• Stay on a farm when visiting the Biosphere Entlebuch Reserve region. You can “sleep in the straw” at the Bauernhof Salwideli farm hotel, where a large room features planks covered with straw. A pillow and blanket are furnished, but it’s best to have a sleeping bag. Simple rooms with beds are also available. Double rooms in summer go for 45 Swiss francs (about $45) per adult and 30 Swiss francs per child and include breakfast. Sleeping in the straw costs 28 Swiss francs per adult and 18 Swiss francs per child, breakfast included. The farm hotel restaurant offers three-course dinners for 27 Swiss francs. Phone (+41) (0) 41 488 15 58; website baurenhof-salwideli.ch.

• For more information on Biosphere Entlebuch, as well as details for arranging a guided hike, see biosphaere.ch.

• For more information on hikes around Flühli, including the Kneipp hike, visit fluehli-wasser.ch.

• For more information on Switzerland, see myswitzerland.com.


Leah Larkin lives in France and can be contacted through her website, leahlarkin.com, or blog address, http://talesandtravel.com.

Hikers get their bearings before setting out on a trail. Hiking among the country's majestic peaks is a national pastime in Switzerland.


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