Winter is coming and with it some beautiful European traditions that ring in the winter season. In many (mainly) German speaking areas one marked signal that winter is coming is the so called ‘Almabtrieb’ or ‘Alpabzug’, the ceremonial droving of cattle down from the alpine meadows back into the stables for winter.
In summer, cows and other farm animals are brought to the alps to graze on the lush mountain pastures. The grass on the alpine pastures is richer and more nutritious than the grass on the lower pastures as they are filled with a vast variety of herbs, grasses and flowers which enhances the flavor of their milk. When the weather gets worse in autumn and the grass on the alpine pastures becomes more sparse, the farmers and shepherds bring the animals back to the valley.
For these cattle drives, cows (or sometimes sheep, horses or goats) are brushed and groomed and then decorated in flowers, twigs and ribbons and adorned with decorative large cowbells and walked down the mountain in a festive procession into the villages, where festivals with music, food and drinks await the procession. People will dress up not only their cows but also themselves in colorful national costumes. Just like the national costumes vary from region to region, the cows’ decorations vary widely. There is often a very religious component to the procession, with some areas including pictures of the virgin Mary or a saint, like St. Anthony or St. Bartholomew, in the decorations and prayers being spoken to thank for a good summer. Note that only herds where no fatality has occurred during the season are decorated.
These cattle drives are quite the spectacle and a highlight on the local event calendar. Here are some of the most spectacular festivals in famous ski regions across the Alps:
Known as the cross-country center of Europe, Oberstdorf is host to the annual Nordic World Ski Championships. The town is located in the state of Bavaria, about 2.5 hours southwest of Munich, close to the Austrian border. Oberstdorf is also known for its world-class ski jumping facility (you may recall it from the “Eddie the Eagle” movie) and also has alpine skiing. Through its connection to the Austrian ski area of Kleinwalsertal, the alpine ski area expands to a total of 80 miles (130km) of groomed ski runs.
The annual Almabtrieb (or ‘Viehscheid’ as it is called here) will be on Wednesday, September 13, 2023, and feature more than 1,000 animals. The cows and sheep are herded back to the Nordic center in Ried, where spectators can feast on local sausages, listen to some German Oompah music and drink the famous German beer in liter steins. Forget about Oktoberfest — this is the real stuff, the locals’ version, without any tourists.
- Related: Trying to Beat the Heatwave: German Resort Oberstdorf Attempts Snow Farming for the First Time
The German town of Berchtesgaden gives access to six alpine ski areas which offer a combined 50km (31 miles) of groomed ski runs. The town of Berchtesgaden will be the center of the cattle drive down from these six ski areas on September 29, 2023. In this area, the head cow will wear a large tiered decoration made up of three globes. The globes are all made by hand and preparations of these decorations has started weeks ago. The globes called ‘Fuikln’ are made out of wood shavings that are colored and then woven by hand onto thin twigs that are bent into globes.
The glacier ski area Hintertux rings in its annual Oktoberfest with the cattle drive. The Almabtrieb is a three day festival here and will take place on the last September weekend, from Thursday, September 21, to Saturday, September 23, 2023. There will be a farmers’ market as well as traditional dancing demonstrations, a festival tent with music and other numerous entertainment. It is a deep dive into Austrian culture and is a highlight you should not miss if you happen to be in the area. Hintertux is located in the Zillertal, Tyrol, in Austria and has 12 miles (20km) of slopes open for summer skiing, and 37 miles (60km) of slopes in winter.
Ramsau (Dachstein), Austria
The glacier ski area Schladming-Dachstein will host several cattle drives and the Ramsau drive will be on the weekend of September 22-24, 2023. The events kick off with musical entertainment on Friday and on Saturday the cows will be decorated and driven down to Walcherhof. The Dachstein Glacier is located in the Austrian region of Styria (‘Steiermark’ in German). The area is located about 90 minutes southeast of Salzburg. The Dachstein Glacier is part of the greater Schladming-Dachstein area, which operates several alpine resorts, cross-country skiing, and ski jumping. Schladming is famous for holding the men’s FIS World Cup Night Slalom every year.
In the French speaking area of Switzerland, Almabtrieb is known as ‘Désalpe’. Charmey is in the famous Gruyere region (yes, like the cheese) and is known for its tasty alpine cheeses. La Désalpe in Charmey takes place each year on the fourth Saturday of September, so this year will be on September 23, 2023. To celebrate the occasion, there is not only traditional music, dancing, flag throwers and Alpine horns, but also a farmers’ market with stalls from local craftsmen and -women. If you’re a lover of Swiss cheeses, run don’t walk to this one. Charmey is about an hour from famous ski areas like Leysin, Les Diablerets or Gstaad.
In the ski region Flims/Laax in the canton Graubünden (Grischa), the annual cattle drive at Flimserstein features a high mountain brunch at many of the several mountain huts in the ski area. Around 200 cows are driven over the spectacular steep path from Scala Mola to Bargis descending 500m (1,640ft) in altitude. The cattle drive takes place this year on September 16, 2023. There is a fun fair, markets stalls, live music and traditional food in the valley.
This is of course just a small selection of the countless cattle drives across the European Alps, so look for information for your favorite European Alpine region for more details.