The hills are alive with ancient traditions, in Austria’s Lungau region

Natalie Marchant discovers a quiet corner of the Austrian Alps in summer, where tradition meets timeless scenery


The Prebersee (Photo: Unsplash)

The summer sun had just risen over the snow-speckled mountains, light illuminating the glass-like waters of Prebersee lake as I walked barefoot through the alpine meadow, feeling the soft mossy soil give way with every step.

In this quiet pocket of the Austrian Alps, the landscape is prized as part of the local way of life, and pausing to soak it in felt magical, an almost childlike experience.

The stillness of the surprisingly opaque lake — which once fascinated Walt Disney — stood in stark contrast to the gently swaying wildflowers and the peaks beyond. And apart from my travel companions, I had this view all to myself.

The Lungau region is the southernmost corner of Salzburgerland and perhaps the least familiar one to both foreigners and Austrians alike — but that’s also very much part of its charm.

Set over 1,000 metres above sea level, it is home to more than 60 mountain lakes, some 70 alpine huts and 15 villages. Oh, and it’s the sunniest region in Austria.

The region’s slogan is echt sein (or ‘being genuine’) and as the biggest Unesco Biosphere Reserve in the country, those aren’t empty words. The accolade was awarded for the unspoiled landscape but also recognises the region’s commitment to preserving its local culture.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on sustainability too, reflected in everything from its locally grown and organic food to its centuries-old traditions and its conservation of the environment.

The best time to see it for yourself is during Almsommer, or Alpine summer, when the hills do indeed come alive with the sound of cowbells and a string of special events, especially in late June, when two of Lungau’s most treasured traditions take place.

The first is the annual Prangstangen procession held in Zederhaus on 24 June, when this otherwise quiet alpine village fills with people wearing traditional trachten clothing — lederhosen for men and dirndls for women — to watch colourfully garlanded poles paraded through the streets.

Resembling a medieval jousting lance covered in up to 60,000 fresh flowers, each Prangstange is between six and eight metres high and weighs up to 85kg, so carrying one is definitely not for the faint-hearted and an honour reserved for the unmarried men of the town.

Praise is also due for the talent involved in making the garlands; they’re covered in alpine and meadow flowers — such as daisies, peonies and forget-me-nots —  and take 300 hours to decorate.

The origin of this centuries-old tradition lies in the belief that Lungau was once plagued by locusts, which destroyed all the vegetation in the area except for the daisies.

The desperate farmers vowed to carry the floral poles in a procession each year, to spare them from such disasters in the future.

In the past few decades, the tradition has gained a new importance, with many villagers who’ve left to work elsewhere returning to take part, but the routine remains otherwise unchanged.

The Prangstangen are taken to the church in Zederhaus the night before the procession, accompanied by the town’s band, before being cautiously guided out of the (rather small) church side door on the morning of 24 June, raised vertical again and handed to a pole bearer who walks off down the crowd-filled route. Unsurprisingly, given the poles’ weight, different bearers take over along the way.

It’s not the only long-standing folk custom to see here during the summer either. Lungau is also known for its Giant Samsons and Samsontragen (or “Samson carrying”), a tradition dating back to the 17th century, which now features six-metre tall Samson puppets.

It began with Capuchin monks staging large processions around the festival of Corpus Christi, featuring biblical depictions on large parade floats, including a giant Samson for the local marksmen’s guild.

Later, the giant figures were dropped from the procession itself, but continued to be carried beforehand and afterwards.

The tradition is unique in Austria, so much so that Samsontragen made it to the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. And watching a giant Samson “dance”, usually accompanied by a brass band and two puppet dwarves, is certainly a memorable spectacle.

Today, 12 different towns and areas have their own Samson, ten of which are in Lungau — the remaining two are in neighbouring Styria.

Most of the year they remain resting in specially-made cases in their respective villages, including St Margarethen, the smallest hamlet allowed one. Spotting them is almost like an alpine game of Pokemon, though the ultimate opportunity of seeing them all together happens only occasionally.

The rest of the time, they are brought out to do their Samson waltz in towns around Lungau at various times during June and September, with locals turning out in their droves to celebrate.

Carrying a 6.5 metre-high puppet may not sound like that much of a challenge but given they can weigh up to 100kg, keeping them upright is as hard work as the Prangstangen, though 23-year-old Franz — one of just six people who have had the honour of carrying the St Margarethen Samson — assured me that it was easier to do so while dancing. When they’re stationary or just walking, four helpers lend a hand.

And last summer, I had the unusual chance to see the St Margarethen Samson do its dance at 1,800m above sea level, where we joined the locals at the Branntweinalm and Kösselbacheralm alpine huts to watch and enjoy a beer or two in the sun.

Staring out across the valley as we hiked back down, across the flower-strewn Katschberg pistes, was a great reminder that the Austrian Alps are a special place to visit in the summer as well as winter.

While I, sadly, grew out of my last dirndl when I was about 13, even being able to observe these traditions alongside the locals is a privilege, a unique bonus as you explore this beautiful area.

Our base at St Margarethen’s Löckerwirt hotel offered a delicious breakfast, to fuel us for a day in the mountains, plus a sauna with a remarkable valley view to enjoy after a day’s hiking. If you prefer a less energetic way to discover the area, e-biking is ideal — once you get used to it.

Our five-mile route from Göriach took us first on regular roads and then on mountain paths to the Göriach Hüttendorf (or hut village), where the tiny wooden buildings surrounded by cows look like something out of a fairy tale.

Or a heritage locomotive takes visitors from the medieval town of Mauterndorf to St Andrä. This is not the quickest way of getting about, so you may want to use the extensive public bus and shuttle network connecting many of the villages and attractions.

But it’s watching the morning light at the Prebersee that remains one of my most lasting memories, something that caught Walt Disney’s imagination too, when he heard of the annual Preberschiessen shoot. Up to 200 marksmen and women from across Europe turn up to fire at targets by aiming at their reflections on the water.

The boggy water is so dense that the successful shooters are the ones whose bullets ricochet off the surface to hit their quarry.

Despite his best efforts, Disney’s team were never able to recreate this phenomenon back in the US. A reminder that the genuine original is so often best.

Getting There

​The closest airport to Lungau is Salzburg, just under two hours away by car. Flights from Gatwick to Salzburg cost from £110 return.

Double rooms at Löckerwirt hotel cost from around £145 per night half-board.

Almsommer launches on 16 June, 2024. For more information, visit and

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