Come warmer weather, fields of flowers and endless sunshine, the cows of the Alpine region frolic around the lush Alpine pastures, grazing to their heart’s content. The cows meander comfortably in the high altitudes with plenty of fresh air, nutritious grass and crisp evenings. Cows are not the only ones to be spoiled by the endless beauty of the Alps but also calves and goats! All over the region, thousands of cows from Germany, Austria and Switzerland spend their summers at the Alm.
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Why Did I Want to Go?
Because they’re just so strinkin’ cute! Literally! Even though I have lived in Germany for several years, when I think German or Bavarian, I picture pretty cows with big bells frolicking through the pastures and folk wearing their traditional lederhosen backed by massive mountainous peaks with Alp huts scattered along the terrain. I have wanted to find a traditional hut hotel and wake up every morning with cows pleasantly nibbling away and a glorious sunrise. While I have not yet found that, I found an adorable tradition of decorating the cows and I knew I had to go!
Where Can You Find an Almabtrieb?
This tradition of driving cows, goats or sheep from the mountain pasture is an annual event throughout the autumn season which can be found throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Once the herders have brought the cows back down the mountain, they parade them through the villages at the foot of the mountains. An Almabtrieb is also know as Alpabzug, Apabfahrt in Switzerland or Désalpes in the French speaking region of Switzerland.
History of the Tradition
In the Spring
In spring, the cows are lead up into the mountains for a long summer of grazing ahead of them, known as an Alpaufzug or Alpfahrt which is as equally celebrated in Switerzland as the Almabtrieb, the return of the cows. However, in Austria and Germany it is not celebrated.
In the Summer
Throughout the Alps during summer, cow herds pleasantly feed on alpine pastures high in the mountains. Herders spend the whole summer watching over the cows, seeing to the cows’ every need in the hopes of returning the cows back to their owners in the autumn, in good health. It may sound easy watching over a bunch of cows, but herders often lead lonely lives beyond making cheese and butter. Starting from August until early October, the cows and goats make their way down the Alps. At any one time, there are about 500,000 cows in Austria, 380,000 in Switzerland and 50,000 in Germany.
In the Autumn
Towards the beginning of September and October, herders bring the cows back down the mountain to their stables in the valley. If there were no accidents on the Alm/Alp during the summer, many regions will elaborately decorate the cows and celebrate with traditional music and dance in the surrounding towns and villages. Once they have arrived back in town, each cow is returned to their owners.
If all goes well, the leading cow, ‘Kranzkuh’, is decorated with an elaborate headdress while the other cows follow behind, in what is known as a cow train with a slightly less fancy crown. No cow is left without its bit of schmuck. Not only are the cows decorated with their pretty fancy crowns, but they are still wearing their very loud and lovey cow bells, which jingles and dingles with every step they take.
The celebration of crowning the cows is a tradition of the towns people giving thanks to God for yet another successful summer season and healthy livestock.
However, not all cow festivals are created equal. While you can find an Almabtrieb in practically any village near the Alps, some might not make a flashy show of it and simply walk their cows home. Others, like in Königssee are a bit more lavish and are quite the tourist attraction these days with a few festival booths set up offering food and of course, beer.
As the event is quite traditional, herders and locals alike will wear their traditional Tracht – Lederhosen and Dirndl that makes this an extra special, traditional event for the region.
We decided that we were interested in going to Königssee, near Berchtesgaden to watch a very different sort of Almabtrieb. Where normally the cows are walked down from the Alps, these cows were given a little extra special attention as the only way to bring the cows back to their owners from the lush pastures of the Berchtesgaden National Park was via boat across the Königssee.
This has been the only way to bring the cows home for the last 100 years via electric boats. The event was celebrated with a bit of traditional Bavarian folk music. Each cow is loaded off of the boat and allowed to meander around the designated docking station before they are individually crowned.
The first batch of cows arrived around 10am before being decorated around 11. The second batch of cows arrived close to 11:30 before all cows were finally herded through town.
**TIP**: I recommend getting there early enough to grab a front row seat, otherwise you will be 10 people deep and won’t see much!
Below are some websites I found information about the many different Almabtrieb throughout the Bavarian region, although these dates are prone to being cancelled or moved depending on the weather.
If you’re not sure where to look, look for any village that sits near the bottom of the Alps as they are sure to have an Almabtrieb festival every autumn, but be warned that not all festivals are equal. Not all festivals decorate their cows so you need to look for “geschmückt” or “nicht geschmückt” to know if the cows are decorated or not.
Our hotel, Hotel Grünberger ⭐⭐⭐ was only a 10 minute drive away, in Berchtesgaden, which gave us plenty of time to explore the area and get to town early enough to get a good spot for taking photos, and had some amazing view of its own from our balcony!
More from this weekend adventure:
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