Lancaster County stretches for about 45 miles from Coatesville, which is forty miles west of Philadelphia on US-30, to the Susquehanna River in the west. Although tiny, uncosmopolitan Lancaster, ten miles east of the river, was US capital for a day in September 1777, the region is famed more for its preponderance of agricultural religious communities, known collectively as the Pennsylvania Dutch. They actually have no connection to the Netherlands; the name is a mistaken derivation of Deutsch (German). A touristy place even before it was brought to international fame by the movie Witness, most of Lancaster County has maintained its natural beauty in the face of encroaching commercialization. It is a region of gentle countryside and fertile farmlands, eccentric-sounding place names such as Intercourse, horse-drawn buggies, tiny roadside bakeries and Amish children wending their way between immaculate, flower-filled farmhouses and one-room schoolhouses.

However, attempting to live a simple life away from the pressures of the outside world has proved too much for many Pennsylvania Dutch. A few (mainly Mennonites) have succumbed to commercial need by offering rides in their buggies and meals in their homes, while members of the stricter orders have moved away to communities in less touristic mid-Western states. When visiting, remember that Sunday is a day of rest for the Amish, so many attractions, restaurants and other amenities will be closed.

Though useful for a general overview and historical insight, the attractions that interpret Amish culture tend toward overkill. It’s far more satisfying just to explore the countryside for yourself. Here, among the streams with their covered bridges and fields striped with corn, alfalfa and tobacco, the reality hits you – these aren’t actors recreating an ancient lifestyle, but real people, part of a living, working community.

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