The following story comes from Frankfort’s world travelers, John and Karen Cosby, who took this trip to Europe in September 2011.
While reviewing some tourist information we had acquired while traveling in Austria, we noticed photos of cows parading through the streets wearing flower garlands and headdresses and thought it would be something to see.
After searching online for “cow parades,” we discovered these events occur in Austria, Germany and Switzerland during September. The Almabtrieb (Austria), Viehscheid (Germany) and Desalpe (Switzerland) is a pastoral custom involving herds of cows decorated with colorful floral headdresses and bells being led from mountain pastures to their village barns for the winter.
The idea fascinated us, and we planned our trip to Europe to experience this unique cultural event, which takes place amidst some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
It’s not too often that someone can say “until the cows come home” and “see you in September” and actually mean it. But in the Alpine regions of Europe during the autumn season, this is exactly what takes place.
In late spring or early summer after the snow has melted, the herds ascend to the high mountain pastures where the grass is fresh and lush.
Traditionally, herders live in small huts in pastures alongside the cows all summer with virtually no contact with wives and girlfriends who stay in the village. However, the herders are kept busy milking the dairy cows and making cheese.
Until the early 1800s, cheese was only made during the four months spent in the mountains. Even today, the cheese made in the mountains is highly prized. During the summertime, herdsmen let all of the cows from the village mingle, but by September before the snow starts to fly, it’s time for Viehscheid – German for “separating the cattle.” After gathering his herd (in Texas this would be called a “round-up”), each stockman then guides his cows from the high mountain pastures back down to the village.
In September and into early October, villagers throw a street bash in celebration of the return.
No wonder people love the Alps; it’s a place where even the cows and sheep party!
One cow from each owner’s herd is chosen to be the Kranzkuh (wreath cow) and wears an especially elaborate headdress. The chosen cow is usually a good-looking specimen and docile enough to tolerate the huge decoration around its head and neck. Many of the colorful wreathlike headgear include a small mirror and Christian icons encircled with flowers (especially in Austria and Germany) to give thanks to God and to ward off evil spirits.
In at least some Austrian towns, herdsmen seem to favor feathers, as well as flowers, for cow decoration. The Swiss Desalpe seems to stick with flowers. However, if misfortune, such as a death or injury, has befallen a group of cows during the summer, that owner is not permitted the honor of having a Kranzkuh in his herd.
Many of the cows are weighted down with an enormous bell attached to a foot-wide embroidered collar, and many are decorated in greenery and lesser headdresses. In some herds, almost every animal is decorated. Some groups even have a few goats, sheep or horses mixed in. There are also Schlafscheids (sheep parades) for large flocks of sheep, which must be separated and sheared.
Each village schedules the return date about a year in advance. The easiest way to obtain a schedule of these events is to contact the various tourist offices via e-mail.
When we went in 2011, some of the herds returned a couple of weeks early due to poor pastures in the mountains.
On the big day, the cattle drive begins in the mountains before dawn. In the meantime, down in the village, a large jovial crowd of men attired in lederhosen and women wearing dirndl dresses gathers to keep watch. I wanted to look like the locals, so I even purchased genuine lederhosen on eBay in preparation for this trip.
The Viehscheid used to be a festival just for the residents of the farming communities, but its popularity has grown so that now visitors come from all over to watch. In some locations such as at Wertach and Bolsterlang in the Allgau region of Germany and at Leutasch in the Tirol region of Austria, we felt like we were perhaps the only real tourists there as the festival is still primarily a local event.
But we attended others such as at Krun and Obermaiselstein in Germany where vast fields were turned into parking lots for the hordes of visitors. The resulting traffic jams can be unbelievable.
We always arrived early and joined the festive crowds to watch for the long anticipated arrival of the herds. Each time, we cheered as we spotted the parade of cows, herdsmen and herd dogs rounding a bend up in the hills. Bells clanged in the distance. The crowd cheered. The animals came closer, and the clanging grew louder until it was almost deafening.
In Wertach, the Wertach Concert Band met the animals and marched into town at the head of the procession. The bands all wear traditional alpine uniforms, complete with jackets and feathered hats. During the several hours walk from the mountains to the village, the herdsmen (and their dogs) have been working the cattle with their staffs to keep them on track. The herders have to be especially vigilant as the cows parade through the village streets as there are always a few that want to stray.
Generally speaking, there are separate festivals on different days for the cows, sheep, goats and horses. Sometimes the animals (especially sheep and goats, but sometimes the cows also) arrive all at once in a single combined herd.
In other villages, the herds are separated before they leave the mountains, and they enter the village in small groups according to a posted schedule, usually between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Often, there are pauses between the arrival of the herds, which provides time for browsing the numerous souvenir stands selling everything from regional food specialties and mountain cheese, to cow bells and stuffed cows, to Bavarian scarves and socks, cow hide slippers, wooden crucifixes and various handicrafts.
In some villages, less than 100 animals are welcomed home whereas in other villages, as many as 1,600 cows return.
Onlookers are welcome to walk among the cows, at their own risk, for photos of the cows along with their proud owners and herders. If their farm is nearby, the herders walk the cows home. Otherwise, they are trucked home. At Kufstein, Austria, we witnessed the herders calling their cows in order to separate the herds. The cows definitely recognized the call of their herder and eagerly ran over to him to begin the walk home.
The separating of the sheep, which we witnessed in Nassereith and Tarrenz in the Tirol region of Austria, is quite a spectacle of chaos and confusion accompanied by a cacophony of bleating and clanging of bells.
Ultimately, drinking and eating seem to have a greater appeal than the animals or shopping. Giant party tents, complete with the Village Concert Band and lively “Polka” bands, are always packed. The fest-goers, in true Alpine fashion, drink their beer in giant mugs, which hold a liter of the golden liquid. Food options include traditional fare such as local German sausages, frankfurters, Wiener Schnitzel (veal cutlets) and pig knuckles, along with giant soft pretzels and sauerkraut.
To our surprise, the biggest seller was half a roasted chicken and a plate full of French fries. The partying goes on all day with numerous musical performances with the crowd often clapping and singing along. When the alpenhorns arrive on the stage, the crowd listens reverently.
Some of the villages also have a Church Day festival where the cheese is blessed and thanks is given to God for a safe and successful Almabtrieb. The church services, which are held outdoors, include bands and numerous visiting rifle corps. There is much pomp and circumstance and presentation of awards as “thank yous” for participating.
We attended Church Day in Jerzens, which is located deep in one of the many amazingly beautiful steep-sided valleys in the Tirol region of Austria. Canons were fired antiphonally from opposite mountainsides. After the service ended, the band led the way back to the center of the village and continued to play while the various rifle corps paraded by. The villagers then gathered at the party tent to enjoy the music, food and beer.
Technically, these festivals are not part of the official Oktoberfest, which occurs during the last two weeks of September, but the party atmosphere is much the same.
Admittedly, some of the festivals have been enhanced a wee bit in this modern era to draw larger audiences. However, to us they are a genuine traditional celebration that has been a vital part of local folk culture for hundreds of years.