Scenes of Switzerland invariably include Alpine slopes dotted with dairy cows happily munching on summer grasses. At other times of year, however, those slopes are covered in snow and filled with skiers. How do these cows get back down before the winter storms?
They do so in a parade, festooned with flowers, ambling downwards to the sounds of cowbells, Alpine yodeling, or horn-playing, all the while cheered by onlookers. Every autumn in Switzerland, the movement of these bovine beasts, more than a quarter million of them, from 7,000 different mountain pastures to the valley floor thousands of feet below, is a major event.
This seasonal celebration, featuring goats, prized cows wearing flower-crowns, and farmers and shepherds clad in traditional costumes, is repeated all over Switzerland throughout the fall. Here’s what you need to know to understand and see the best cow festivals in Switzerland.
Why do the cows come down the mountain in Switzerland?
The Swiss, along with other Alpine countries like Austria, have long been taking their cattle to higher elevations in the summer to graze on fresh grasses and herbs that thrive during the short window of warmer days. In May or June, dairy farmers and herdsmen take their cows uphill — an average height of 2,000 feet higher — where the herdsmen themselves will stay for up to three months.
When they opt to come back down depends on mountain conditions. If it’s been a rainy summer, they may descend as early as the end of August, since alpine grasses will begin to rot. Dry weather may mean that grasses are eaten up. A summer of ideal weather may mean the cattle are brought down as late as mid-October.
Once shepherds decide when the processions will take place, the event is choreographed to occur in a particular order. Many parades begin with goats led by a goat boy and watched also by goat girls, while others begin with the cows. Either way, the star of the event is the dairy cow. It may be a single “dairy queen” cow or three, wearing an herbal headdress, a massive red ribbon, or an ultra-huge cowbell.
Dairy cows are revered in Switzerland. It’s not just that their milk is the magic ingredient in some of the world’s best cheeses and chocolates, but because they’re central to a traditional Swiss way of life dating back centuries. This celebration is a chance for proud dairy farmers and onlookers to shower them with appreciation.
The processions vary in size and location — with those occurring in mountain villages providing the best backdrop, but potentially requiring you to arrive in a shuttle bus. (Unless you hike in). The ones in cities don’t feel quite as old-timey, but may end up at a food fair where you can sample cheeses made by the same dairy farmers who are herding the cows and which make for some of the coziest winter foods anywhere. Here are some of the most notable cattle drives.
Cow parade in Switzerland #1: Appenzell
Appenzell is one of the smallest Swiss Cantons, which is like a mini-state, and also one of the most traditional. That adherence to the old ways of doing things makes for an impressive Alpabzug, as the cattle descent is known here, if for no other reason than the attire worn by the humans is meticulously detailed.
In Appenzell, the parades are led by a young Gässbueb, or goat boy, and the Appenzell white goats, followed by a goat girl. Behind them are the three best dairy cows — those that produced the most milk over the summer, with dairy men in traditional costumes following. While the young goat girls wear midi-length dresses, white lacy stockings, and wide traditional belts, the male costumes steal the show: lemon-yellow deerskin pants, crimson vests, and black hats decorated with flowers. No detail is overlooked in Appenzell, where dairymen wear a gold earring of a small, dangling bowl.
The soundtrack in Appenzell is the pleasantly low murmur of the huge cowbells worn by the lead cows, accompanied by yodeling called Zauren. Given that it’s on the wetter side of the country, Appenzell cattle drives may occur as early as August, and certainly by the end of September.
Cow parade in Switzerland #2: Interlaken
The cattle drive in Suldtal is one of the most tourist-ready, seeing as Interlaken is one of the most popular places for summer travelers. The goat girl in bright red dresses and goat boys in black jackets start off the show, bringing with them white, brown, and black goats, wearing their melodious goatbells. The cows and their herders follow. A shuttle bus from Aeschiried takes you to Suldtal (the bus costs CHF 5, about $5, and free for 16 and under). The event ends at a restaurant, where you can enjoy lunch and even buy things like cheeses made from the milk these herb- and grass-fed cows produce.
Cow parade in Switzerland #4: Valais
Canton Valais is one of the sunnier regions of Switzerland, and the descent of the dairy cows may not occur until October. Valais also has the highest concentration of very tall mountains in Switzerland, and getting up to the tall peaks in the first place is no small feat. When the cows first ascend in late spring or early summer, village celebrations are also held, and the cows are blessed.
In Valais, one difference is that rather than yodeling, the cattle move to the sound of alphorns – along with their cowbells. At cattle drives in places like Belalp, Ried-Brig, Leukerbad, and Siviez, the emphasis is less on traditional costumes, which may be nothing more than a matching shirt, but the cows wear lovely tiaras of sunflowers or mountain blooms.
Cow parade in Switzerland #5: Graubünden
Like in Valais, Graubünden herders aren’t as meticulous about their attire. All will wear bright blue shirts and don black felt hats with flowers. But in this canton, it’s acceptable to wear jeans instead of yellow leather pants. The additional attention here seems to be down to the cow’s headdress, which may be decorated with pine branches and cones, sunflowers, and alpine wildflowers. However, they do make an entire weekend of it in Prättigau, near Davos. Each October, the Alpspektakel, as they call it, includes a food market, a children’s petting zoo, choral presentations in traditional dress, and even a goat shearing.
Cow parade in Switzerland #6: Gstaad
Gstaad may be best known for its couture shops and fine cuisine, where people go to ski for a morning, so they can spend the afternoon having lunch and strolling the main pedestrian lane in their poshest winter attire. But the Saanenland region in which Gstaad is located is home to 200 high altitude dairies, the highest one of which is at 6500 feet above sea level. Since the cattle drives wind up in the elegant town of Gstaad, in one of many summer festivals, it’s only fitting that the farmers outdo themselves creating truly ornate flower headdresses for their best dairy cows.
Cow parade in Switzerland #7: St. Gallen
In the canton of St. Gallen, the dairy farmers at the Mels cattle drive are as florally festooned as their cows — with flowers embroidered on their shirts and plenty of flowers in their hair or on their felt caps. In addition to bouquets, the cows carry wooden placards, which look like coats of arms, on their foreheads. There’s a relaxed vibe to this cattle drive, which winds up in town, where an open market offers up bites to eat and beer to drink.
Cow parade in Switzerland #8: Canton Bern
If you can’t make it to Switzerland in the fall, there are opportunities to see cattle drives in the spring and summer, too. In fact, the most famous cattle drive in Canton Bern is not the autumn trip down — but the summer ascent at Engstligenalp near Alpenboden. On a single day in June, 500 cows are guided in single file up a steep, narrow staircase carved on the mountain. It’s such a sight that the cable car begins operating at 5:00 AM so that travelers can come to see these gentle creatures show off how mountain-ready they really are.