There is an annual event here in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (basically in the alps) that came from humble origins and has turned into a large festival. There are several throughout a couple week time period, in different locations, all involving cows.
The Almabtrieb is the cattle drive from the alpine pastures to the valley barns. During the summer months the cattle herd will feed on pastures in the alpine regions of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. When Autumn starts to come around there is one drive for each area of towns to bring the cattle down to the valleys and back to the barns of their farms. Over time, these cattle drives have turned into large festivals, with the cows being “dressed” in wreaths and crowns, and the towns and villages coming out for a grand party. During the festival (which involves a lot of craft booths, drinking, food, and music), the cows are herded right through the center streets for all to see. They typically have large bells to signal their entrance and at the one we went to, they used the fire department bell to signal movement, so there is no chance of missing the cows.
I’m going to breakdown our experience and then I’m going to give a couple of tips that I found helpful when we went in case you get a chance to go…
This year we got to experience an Almabtrieb in a little town called Reith Im Alpbachtal in Austria. It’s about a 3-hour drive for us that is really pretty. Austria itself is a gorgeous country, it’s on my favorite spots we’ve been. In terms of the festival itself, there was a lot! It was much bigger than I was expecting with a lot more people. The streets are blocked off (obviously) and lined on each side with booths full of small businesses, food, and drinks.
The cows themselves are adorned with crowns and bells at the start of the drive and then paraded through the street.
I don’t think that this happens at every Almabtrieb ( I know of one person who has attended one where they didn’t “dress the cow” as they call it), but I think it is at most of them. There isn’t any rope or barrier, so you will actually be right next to the cow as it walks down. The herders walk alongside the cows to make sure nothing happens and to keep the cows moving along.
Once the cattle have been through the streets you may be able to go see them in the pasture. I would encourage you to do this as they are able to rest and the bells no longer sound obnoxious in the close confines of the streets, but rather like beautiful wind chimes in the mountains.
This particular festival had several forms of entertainment between these street performers, a whip performance, and different bands that alternated throughout the festival and throughout the day.
We stopped and bought cowbells, food, and did a little wood project sawing off our own souvenir.
My tips/things I learned:
- Staying the night isn’t essential. Obviously this tip really only applies to those who are in our area of Bavaria/Germany or if you are going to be traveling through the area. We are early risers as it is, and I didn’t find getting up a little bit earlier to be that bad. I also didn’t see that it was so bad of a drive for a trip. If you want to stay in the area for longer you certainly can, but I didn’t find it necessary just for the festival.
- Be prepared for crowds at just about any Almabtrieb you go to. This has turned into quite a tourist spot and a full-on festival, so there will be a crowd. I found it to be fairly manageable, although I felt a little bit better that we went as a group rather than just me with both boys by myself.
- Bring Euro. Most festivals here in Europe do not take cards, so Euro is essential. How much will depend on what all you want to get, but I would definitely bring more than you would think you would need. The booths are full of local hand-crafted items (my favorite way of shopping) and all of the food and drinks are delicious.
- Arrive a little early to scope everything out and get into the festival mood. The festival that we went to opened at 10AM, but the cows were not to come through until about 12PM. WE used the couple hours to do a little shopping, let the kids run that pent up car ride energy off, and find the best place to sit once the first alarm sounded. There are actually several groups of cattle that come through, so if you miss the first round it doesn’t mean you won’t see any. We actually ended up seeing two or three herds come through by the time we headed to the pasture ourselves. They come through in bursts throughout the afternoon so you can eat, or shop in between as well or just enjoy the ambiance of the festival.
Overall, we had so much fun and I would honestly recommend that anyone and everyone attend. It is such a cool cultural thing to experience and the kids still haven’t stopped talking about it. So, if you’re visiting around this time of year (any time mid-September to early October) make sure to look up the Almabtrieb schedule.