As a child, I loved spending time on the farm. I have so many wonderful memories I’ve made there, but my absolute favorite thing to do was to wake early and bring the cows down from the night pastures. It was a highly sought after activity. My cousins and I would all vie for a position, dealing and bargaining like small traders – each of us hoping that we would be the one my uncle would take with him. How elated was the chosen child, and how disappointed were those left behind – at least until they found the cake leftover from dinner the night before waiting for them in the kitchen. It was the most magical of adventures, and to this day remains among my most treasured of memories. What a trip it was, riding the tractor up the hills, disappearing into the fog, searching every corner of the pasture in a careful game of hide and seek with the dairy cows. Once we’d located everyone, we’d head back down to the farmhouse for a hearty and well-deserved breakfast, then the real work of the day began.
It’s been years since I’ve brought cows down myself, but here in Europe we’ve found something almost as good, the Almabtriebfest. Depending on where you look, the event is referred to as Almabtrieb, Alpabtrieb, or Viehscheid, but they all refer to bringing the cows home from the Alpine pastures where they’ve spent their summers, to the warmth of the barns where they’ll spend their winters. You can find the festivals in villages and cities throughout the Austrian, German, Swiss and Italian Alps. We’ve been to three, all in Austria.
The Almabtriebfests are held from late August to early October each year, and unfortunately for me, I had discovered them too late to attend our first year. Undaunted, I began searching for a fest to attend the following fall. I found one in a small town near Reute, Austria.
The following fall, the children and I set off one Saturday morning in search of cows. I had nothing more than the name of the town, which was a two-hour drive from our home. I plugged the name of the small village into the GPS and set off. As we approached the small town, I realized I had absolutely no idea where the cows would be coming from, or going to. Fortunately I arrived early enough to allow for some additional exploration. As luck would have it, I also had two wide awake copilots in the rear seat telling me they didn’t see any cows. After driving around for a while, I decided to stop at the grocery store. While we picked out items for a tailgate picnic, I managed to remember the words for cow and where in German. The kind lady behind the meat counter actually understood me, and by some tremendous stroke of luck, I learned that the cows would be coming down the street right in front of us. We thanked her and headed back to our car, popped open the trunk and ate our bounteous feast. As we ate the parking lot started to fill with cars, and people began lining the streets. Then, we heard it. The deafening clang of bells. We raced to the roadside and waited for the cows to come home.
It wasn’t long before the cows did come. Because this was a smaller town, all of the farmers came down together, and the livestock was separated out at the end. It was a parade unlike any I had seen before. Cows, sporting giant headdresses and enormous bells, slowly ambled down the street with their handlers. Everyone was wearing lederhosen. Some of the cows resisted participation in the parade, but most seemed resigned and undisturbed by their current plight. It was loud, it was beautiful, it was great fun, and it was over in about 20 minutes.
I realized after the last cow went past that no one seemed to be going anywhere, so the children and I waited not knowing quite what to expect next. It was a little while before we heard them again, the bells, only this time it wasn’t the deep clang we’d just heard, it was a small, light tinkling. We peered up the street expectantly, but whatever it was, it was still beyond our line of sight. Finally, off in the distance we saw something moving fairly quickly. Something just a bit smaller. They were goats. Not quite as prettily adorned, but all wearing tiny bells around their necks. And they were being led by children. The children worked together and quickly herded the band of goats past. A tractor followed at a distance, and finally, the spectators began to take the same route the cows and goats had before them.
We followed the other spectators, and soon ended up at a marketplace which had been converted to a livestock holding area. The cows had disappeared to their barns, but pens full of sheep and goats lined the square. We admired the friendly animals and purchased a wreath, crafted with pine boughs, thistles, and alpine berries. At the far end of the square, was the unmistakable red and white striped fest tent. We wandered in, but the tent was already packed full of people. We listened to a song or two before we headed back to our car and began the two-hour return trip.
The Almabtriebs, as we learned that day, are not just for cows. The farmer’s bring goats, sheep, and the occasional llama down as well. In many places, each of these are held on different days, or at different times. This small Almabtrieb was the only one we would attend where all of the cows and goats would come down together. It was the quickest of the parades, but it remains my favorite.
The second year, we decided to make a weekend of it. We set off late on a Friday afternoon for Mayerhofen, Austria. This is one of the better known Almabtriebs and our first choice of hotels was already booked solid. They referred us to a partner hotel, the Apparthotel Ederfeld, where by another stroke of luck, we ended up with a balcony overlooking the parade route.
The party began early, but unlike the Almabtrieb we attended the year before, the cows came down in small groups. The processions lasted the better part of the day, and between the short bursts of cows, people lined the streets. The Mayrhofen Almabtrieb is one of the larger Almabtriebs, with hundreds of cows from area farms. Each of the farmers came through individually, with as many as 50 cows at a time to as few as three or four. Unlike the first Almabtrieb, this seemed to be a giant street party with an occasional cow passing through. We made our way up and down the main street, eating wursts and sampling schnapps along the way. When the walking and crowds became too much, we escaped to our balcony and watched the procession of people and cows from above.
Our third Almabtrieb was in Tannheimer Tal, also in Austria. This was another weekend trip and we stayed at the lovely Hotel Bognerhof. The Tannheim Almabtrieb is possibly the largest of those we attended. Because it began a bit later in the morning, we had plenty of time to explore the lovely town. A Tal in German is a valley, and this picture postcard town is surrounded on all sides by mountains. We arrived late the night before, and the steep windy roads in were our only indication of what we’d see in the morning. What a fabulous surprise it is when you wake to find yourself facing a glorious sunrise over the mountains.
This was the first Almabtrieb we attended where the cows were not adorned with headdresses. When we inquired about this, we were told that the headdresses were only made in years when every cow made it safely through the summer. If you look closely at the flower crowns adorning the cows’ heads, you will notice that most of them include a religious theme, many with crosses, saints, Mary, or Jesus. These traditional crowns are crafted by the farmers as a way to praise God for safely bringing them through the dangers of summers in the Alps. If you come across an Almabtrieb without crowns, it means at least one of the herd has perished over the summer. Crowns of flowers indicate a successful summer, although today, there are some Almabtriebs where the headdresses is worn regardless, for the tourists.
During the Tannheimer Almabtrieb, like Mayrhofen, each farmer brings the cows come in separately, although they seemed to come closer together. The cows are led down the main street to the edge of town where they remain in a giant temporary pasture until they are again sorted and return home. Seeing all the cows in the pasture, in the shadow of the Alps, hearing the clanging of cowbells as the bovine crowd nonchalantly grazes is a magical end to the day.
The following morning before we began the long drive home, we took one last walk along the fields now filled with cows. As we watched the cows watching us in the early morning light, I felt once more like I had as a child, sharing that special moment with the cows, surrounded by the people I love.
If you have an opportunity to attend an Almabtrieb, you won’t regret it. Each one is just a little different, and each one is spectacular.
Here are a couple of links with Almabtriebfest dates: