The festivals, secret and local, are a must-do while you are in the Alps in fall. Find out how and what the Alpine Cow Parades are all about in this guide.
After living in Bavaria for four years, I’m addicted to the colorful, bejeweled parade of cows known as the Almabtrieb or cow parade. Every fall, small troops of leather clad men and women climb to the high alpen pastures to collect their cows and bring them down off the mountain. This is the spectacle to watch in the Alps in the fall. Truly a do not miss event!
Magical Cow Parades in the Alps – I’m Addicted!
Let’s rewind. First, we need to back up and go back to summer in the Alps. The snow is all but melted, the grass is green and peppered with alpine herbs, the skies are blue with big billowy clouds sitting on top of the jagged mountains. It doesn’t matter where you are in this stunning region of Europe, the Alps are filled with wildflowers, sheep, hikers, and cows. Getting off the train or bus, or stepping out of your car the first thing you notice is the far off tinkling of cow bells, and if you take a close look on those gargantuan mountains you will see plenty of bovines.
What is a Cow Parade aka Almabtrieb
The Swiss, German, and Austrian farmers look forward throughout the winter to the spring and warmth so they can take their herds up, way up. The cows, and many sheep, are pastured all summer in high valleys, steep mountainsides, places you might be surprised to see them, but they are there. The cows munch and get fat on this fresh grass and herb diet. The farmers have hired hands to milk the cows twice a day, and some still make cheese all summer long. After about 100 days of feasting on this rich green grass, the farmers must fetch their herds and bring them back home for the long winter where the cows will once again rely on the hay the farmer has managed to harvest while they were on walkabout.
Then the magic begins. From the end of August until mid-October the dairy farmers who live in the Alps have a centuries-old tradition of going back up the mountain and bringing back their cows. This is done with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Hopefully the cows have been sure-footed and the farmers have not lost any of their herd, because if they do the entire town mourns with them and not as much frivolity will ensue.
The cows are brought down off the mountain and decorated. Some have huge cow bells, some have evergreen fir boughs, some have flowers, and some have ribbons. They are prettied up and paraded through the town with people lining both sides of the road to welcome them home. As the cows are either pastured near a fest-tent or sent directly to the barn, the farmers, townspeople, and visitors all head for the fest. Each town has a place to eat, drink beer, maybe buy local products, listen to local folk music, and enjoy the warm last days of summer.
We’ve done this as much as we can each fall. There’s no way to say which is a better experience, because they are all so vastly different.
Switzerland Cow Parades
In Switzerland, depending on the area, there are large and small processions, some including the goats and sheep that had accompanied the cows for the entire summer. At each one, you can sample foods with the traditional cheese. For instance, in Urnäsch we had an alpine cheese with pear sandwich. While in Gruyères, we enjoyed the tasty fondue. This, along with cute young barefoot boys singing in the town square, or the massive alpine horn bands playing traditional music, makes visiting Switzerland during this time a must.
Austria Cow Parades
In Austria, there are many small hamlets and dorfs that hold a cow parade. If you get there early, you can even watch the locals bell and adorn the cows with flowers and evergreens. Some cows love it and can’t wait while others feel affronted and do everything in their power to remove the beast that rests on their heads. The headdresses that are handmade by the local women are truly amazing and seeing the cows all bejeweled is really an unparalleled experience.
Germany Cow Parade – Alpenfahrt
In Germany, the fest-tents are huge and the farmers are more than happy to run their cows through the town as quickly as possible to get to the beer. One of our favorites is in the town of Pfronten. We love the wursts, the oompah band, and the huge market where you can buy all kinds of local handicrafts and foods. Another favorite is Lake Königsee where the cows have no path to walk, so they must be fetched by boat. Let me tell you, that’s a sight!
Plan your European trip this fall to include at least one cow home-coming. You won’t regret it.
How do you find out where the cow parades are taking place? Each area has their own website with a list of dates, but here is one that promises to have the full list: Termine Almabtriebe und Viehscheid
Austria – Allgäu
Germany – Bavaria
Some words that will help you search on the Internet as well as looking at local signs:
In German – The almabtrieb is the most common word for the return off of the Alm or the high pastures.
In Swiss, they viehscheid or désalpe (French) to describe coming down from the mountains.
Alpine Cow Parade Hotels
It goes without saying that many people love this centuries-old tradition and if you are interested in seeing a cow parade I would definitely spend the night. Hotels are plentiful but can get booked up rather quickly. Therefore, you should book as soon as you can to make sure that you are able to really enjoy the parade and the festivities afterwards.
Albeuve holds a wonderful alpine cow parade, and there are a few places to stay in the area. Check out these hotels.
This was our first cow parade, and the town holds a complete fair. It was pretty amazing. You can stay anywhere in town and see the goings on. Check out hotel price here.
There are plenty of hotels in Pfronten, you can compare hotel prices here.
Check for the best hotels in Berchtesgaden here.
Have you been to any cow parades? Where is your favorite?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
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