Swiss cows

Every autumn, Swiss cows in their droves leave the high pastures of summer to return to the valleys, collared with bells and with bouquets on their heads. In an ancestral tradition dating to the early Middle Ages, the arrival of cows in Swiss valleys is celebrated across the country on strictly scheduled dates. These get-togethers are much more than country festivals, though. The farmers and cheesemakers involved are all taking advantage of Switzerland’s extraordinary collage of mountains and valleys. Transhumance, the practice of shifting animals to different altitudes depending on the season, provides them with the milk that goes a distinctive range of Alpkäse, or alp cheeses . Transhumance is la désalpe in French-speaking Switzerland and der Alpabzug to German speakers.

Swiss cowsValleys cut off in winter from the rest of the country have kept their distinct visual, acoustic, and culinary traditions. From Sumiswald in Canton Bern to Urnäsch in Canton Apenzell, farmers markets, live music, and all manner of cheese delicacies mark the cows’ return from Alpine pastures. The festivities last all day, with flag throwing, alphorns, and stalls selling regional specialties. Désalpe/Alpabzug happens, rain or shine. No matter the weather, this is the time to join locals for food, wine and music. In the more remote regions, the day of the cows’ descent is a mostly local affair, with surprisingly few visitors on hand.

Switzerland’s festival season cranks into overdrive in autumn (perhaps the best time for food travel here?). Anyone wanting to experience la désalpe/der Abzug in Switzerland is spoiled for choice. During our years in Switzerland, Tom and I made it to several of the country’s colorful, cow-centric festivals. And year-round, we enjoyed all kinds of glorious al cheeses!

About alp cheese

By the end of the 18th century, places such as Gruyère were already cheese making centers, with hundreds of working alpine pastures. In the mountains of Switzerland, for four months in summer, cheese is made at altitude, often over wood fires. Every round is imbued with the aromas of alpine flora before it is sent to the valley to be refined in the cellars of village dairies, brushed and coated daily with brine for two-to-three months.

The microclimates of the mountain pastures of Switzerland produce the flowers, grasses and alpine herbs that flavor the cheeses of summer. Transhumance is the action behind nuanced milk flavors that affect the taste of these cheeses, depending on the time of year and location of production. Cheese rounds produced in the mountains and brought down for aging through the winter are date-stamped, and generally, command the highest prices from connoisseurs. Here’s what Culture Magazine says about the diversity and qualities of alpine cheeses.  

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Alp cheese, made at altitude, aged in a Swiss valley, pre-ordered by individual customers a year in advance!
Cowbells worn for the spring and autumn walks to and from high pastures spend the summer as decoration for a Swiss cowherd’s mountain chalet.

Désalpe/Alpabzug memories

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Cows returning to the valley after a summer in Alpine pastures
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Bringing home the cheese-making gear
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Queens for a day, the cows of Gruyère return from summer pastures decked out in flowers, bells, and leather necklaces.
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A queen sports autumn finery in Blatten b. Naters, Wallis.
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Cows are led by cowherds and children dressed in embroidered traditional jackets and dresses.
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On Alpabzug day in eastern Switzerland, the mood is festive, despite an early morning of fog and drizzle.
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Herds from the township of Albeuve, south of Gruyère, on the road to Château-d’Oex and Gstaad
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Crepes, sweet and savory, are a feature of every Swiss festival.
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Many festivals celebrating the cows return from Alpine pastures are surprisingly local, and a lot of fun!
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Cows down in Seewis…well done!

If you go

Across the country, most villages with a mountain backdrop and cows practice désalpe/Alpbzug. When the cows reach town, they’ll parade through the streets with heifers, sheep, goats, and sometimes pigs. The events take place over the span of a month, beginning in mid-September.

Visit the Switzerland Tourism website for a list of dates and places for Alpine festivals, with links to local tourism sites.

Swiss Vistas provides a schedule of traditional festivals in Switzerland year-round. Check out the entries for September and October, to see dates for cattle drives and other autumn celebrations.

Interested in seeing some of the events we have attended?

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  1. What a great tradition and fabulous photos to illustrate it! Thank you for continuing to educate and enrich my life with such things as I never imagined!


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