When the Cows are Coming Home — Traditional Alpine Descents

© anne kohler

Not just millions of Swiss and international tourists, but also hundreds of thousands of Swiss cows, sheep, goats, and other animals head to the Swiss Alps in summer. While the animals probably don’t focus on the gorgeous landscape, they enjoy the rich and tasty grasses and wildflowers on the alpine pastures and produce tasty milk that is then processed into aromatic cheeses and other dairy products.

But every summer stay in the mountains comes to an end, not just for the tourists, and with the beginning of fall and the colder weather, the cattle also descend from the mountains to their winter quarters. In many communities this event is still celebrated with very traditional and picturesque festivals—the ”Alpabzug” or ”Alpabfahrt” in the German regions, “Désalpe” in the French-speaking regions, “discesa alpina” (Italian), or “Scargada” (Romansh) in canton Graubunden.

These events, which take place from late August until early October, are definitely worth visiting and provide a unique view into the traditions of the beautiful Alpine regions of Switzerland (similar events also take place in the German and Austrian Alps).

For these festivals, the farmers who have stayed with their animals up on the mountains decorate some or all of their animals with spectacular flower arrangements and their often huge bells, load their belongings on horse-drawn carts or wagons, put on their own traditional costumes, and hike down from the mountains to the nearest town. There, they are welcomed with a large festival with music, food stands, cheese markets, crafts stalls, and other entertainment celebrating the traditions of the region. While the festival is ongoing, the different herds and their minders will pass through the town throughout the day, depending on how long it takes them to walk down from their respective summer pastures.

This year, many of the events in Switzerland will be taking place on Saturday September 9, 16, 23, and 30, as well as October 7. Check the calendar for more information about some of these charming Swiss must-experience events. However, be sure to confirm the dates before you head out as sometimes festivals or at least the descent of the animals may have to be cancelled or changed on the basis of weather or feedstock.

photos: © anne kohler