Alp Cows in Autumn: Switzerland’s Alpine Descent Festivals

The first chilly winds of fall signal Alpine communities that the time has come: it is time to bring the cows, goats, and sheep down from their high mountain meadows to their winter homes in the valleys below. This past weekend launched the first of a series of festivals all across Switzerland that celebrate the beautiful bounty of summer and mark the beginning of a new season. Depending on where you are in Switzerland, these autumnal events are referred to as Alpabzug or Alpabfahrt in German, La Désalpe in French, Giornata agricola in Italian, and Transhumance in English. Since I can’t figure out that English translation, we are going to stick with Alpine Descent!

Ever since we moved to Switzerland, I immediately placed “Attend an Alpine descent festival” on my Swiss Bucket List. In 2016, we spent one Saturday at the Prättigauer Alp Spektakel in Seewis im Prättigau, a tiny mountainside village in Canton Graubünden, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled by the sights, the sounds, and the traditions. Allow me to show you just what these Alpine festivals are all about!

DARLING SWISS VILLAGES & A PEEK INTO RURAL LIFE
Experiencing small town life remains tangible for travelers in Switzerland. Alpine festivals present the perfect occasion to get a taste of rural Swiss life, and an observant visitor can notice the nuances of interactions between locals in their friendly banter and warm greetings. For a people who are very private, this glimpse into Swiss culture is quite refreshing and heart-warming. Plus, the bucolic settings add a romantic charm to your day.

TRADITIONAL ROLES FOR ALL GENERATIONS
At any Alpine festival, you are likely to see both paraders and on-lookers wearing traditional clothing from their region. Often, children participate in the events by handing out homemade candies or even bites of cheese.

During many Alpine festivals, you are likely to encounter a troupe of Swiss men carry enormous cow bells through the parade route. Of course, you will probably hear them before you see them!

The Swiss really love their cow bells. Despite the controversy over their deafening clang, these massive melody makers remain a fixture in any Alpine experience.

THE COW PARADE!
The stars of the show are obviously the Alp cows themselves. For Alpine Descent festivals, farmers will often adorn their herds with elaborate flower headdresses, garlands, or embroidered pieces. Oh, and of course, cow bells.

Cows aren’t the only ones who head down the mountain in autumn. Goats also make their way along the parade route, too. After all, winter is coming…

FESTIVAL BOOTHS FEATURING ALPINE PRODUCTS
Across Switzerland in the summertime, herds of cattle, goats, and sheep are munching away in the grassy high mountain meadows. Their feasting produces bucket loads of milk on a daily basis, and farmers work diligently to harvest their animal products on site, taking the fresh milk to make a variety of Alpine cheeses. As a result, alpkäse is the other star of these Alpine festivals.

Two women drive a horse-drawn carriage along the parade route, their buggy filled with freshly made Alp cheese.
At the Prättigauer Alpine Festival, a regional map indicates where each participating farm is located and the products they sell.

From hand-carved wooden decorations and toys to homemade batches of Swiss gingerbread cookies (lebkuchen), Alpine festivals are venues that also feature a variety of Swiss folk art, tradition, and design.

LOVEY LITTLE SIGHTS
With spectacular mountain scenery and vibrant displays of summer glory, Alpine descent festivals are exhibitions in true Swissness. In my opinion, they are totally worth the journey!

THE SOUNDS OF SWITZERLAND
As I’ve shared on Global Heartbeat before, the cacophony of cow bells is one of the signature sounds of Switzerland, and it’s a glorious clamor that you cannot miss at an Alpine Descent festival!

If those cow bells are calling your name, take a look at this article by Newly Swissed or the My Switzerland Events page to determine which Alpine Descent festival you can attend this year!


Hi friends! Have you been to an Alpine Descent festival in Switzerland? Are you like me and a little jealous of those flower-crowns the cows get to wear? Did you know that US-branded “Swiss cheese” is based on only one type of cheese found in Switzerland? (That particular cheese with the holes in it is from a specific region, Emmental, and trust me… true Swiss Emmentaler cheese tastes way better than America’s version of Swiss Cheese!)

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