Summer Holidays are Over… for Swiss Cows
Over the past few years living in Zürich, there have been innumerable “only in Switzerland” moments. Local festivals come to mind, especially Stoos Schwinget, the country’s national sport, where large men dressed in sky blue Edelweiss-clad shirts hold on to each other’s shorts and wrestle to the ground, within a circle of saw dust. (There’s rock throwing contests, alphorn players and yodeling there too.) The hot air balloon festival in Château d’Oex is a must see, the sky filled with enormous, colorful balloons against a breathtaking backdrop of snow-covered Alps. Yet another jaw-dropping visual is White Turf in St. Moritz, when dark, handsome horses race on a frozen lake. It’s simply spectacular. And finally, I can now add Alpabfahrt to that list of unforgettable Swiss events. Alpabfahrt ? Time for Swiss cows to come home; summer vacation on the Alps is over.
In the spring, farmers bring their cows up to the high pastures of the Alps (1200-1500m), where the cows graze in fresh mountain air, eating a summer diet of nutrient-rich grasses and enjoying more free space. They simply have to come back down before the snow starts to fall. And when they do, it’s a grand celebration ! Townspeople welcome the farmers back home, who all proudly herd their milk cows down from the alpine pastures to the valley, dressed up in floral head pieces and decorative bells and accessories (the cows, not the farmers). Herdsmen leave early in the morning and walk upwards of 40 km until they reach their barns. This is no slow stroll; they are plowing through town.
Each region, and even village, has its own customs, including the way the farmers, their families and even the cows are dressed. Appenzell is perhaps the most famous, Appenzeller men in their traditional trachten, bumblebee yellow pants, white shirts, red vests, Ohrschuefe earrings in the shape of a wooden spoon (the traditional utensil for skimming cream) and folkloric black hats. I was recently at the Alpabfahrt (also known as Alpabzug or in French, Désalpe) in Schüpfheim (Entlebuch), known endearingly as “the wild west of Lucerne.”
The second I got off the train, I could hear an incessant clanging coming from the town center. This was no idyllic background sound of cow bells off in the rolling green meadows as Heidi skips along in the foreground – it was more like a loud clamoring of pots and pans ! But that’s what you get when groups from 7 farms with their 30-40 cows each are parading through town, cow bells swaying nonstop. Traffic is stopped and shepherds keep their cows together, along with a few goats (with their own bells too) and dogs as well. It is an outrageous scene, and I am thrilled to have finally witnessed it firsthand.
As soon as the last cow has trodded through town and the last farmer has waved to the crowd, reminiscent of a local town mayor recently elected, a large cleaning truck comes through (so Swiss). Otherwise, it’s quite an obstacle course to get around (pew). Stands along the main street are filled with people, grabbing wursts and bread rolls and tastes of Alpkäse, cheese made with the milk the cows produced during their summer holidays. A distinct taste is noticeable – a more herbal flavor, not necessarily better or worse, simply a new taste sensation and one worth trying. What do you prefer ? Overall, there’s a great atmosphere in town, and lots of local fare to go with it.
It was an extremely enjoyable day, watching the cows and their proud farmers marching through town, seeing children dressed up in traditional attire as well, perhaps looking forward to leading the troupe one day themselves. All the while, locals and tourists cheering on. And of course, the festival wouldn’t be complete without alphorn players and yodelers. Only in Switzerland, indeed.
Read more about this traditional and oh so Swiss festival:
“When the cows come home” on Swiss Watching
Alpfahrt and Alpabfahrt on Appenzellerland
“Will economics trump tradition on the Alps” on Swissinfo
“Swiss cow bell ringing without the cows” on IMPress
Mark your calendars for next year, the Alpabfahrt in Schüpfheim is September 22, 2012 !