One of the most captivating and picturesque traditions in Switzerland is the Alpabzug, a vibrant celebration that marks the return of cows and livestock from their summer sojourn in the high Alpine pastures to their cozy winter homes in the valleys. This age-old tradition provides locals and tourists alike with a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in Swiss culture, witness stunning pageantry, and savour the flavours of mountain life.
Alpabzug, often referred to as “Desalpe” in French-speaking Switzerland, is a compound word that can be broken down into two parts: “Alp” and “abzug.” “Alp” refers to the high-altitude Alpine pastures where cows graze during the summer months, and “abzug” means the process of descending or returning (sometimes Abfahrt is used). This tradition not only celebrates the safe return of the animals but also the hard work of the farmers who take care of them throughout the summer.
The Alpabzug season typically takes place in September, when farmers and their families start preparing for the festivities. The cows are adorned with ornate, flower-bedecked headdresses and massive cowbells that serve both as symbols of status and as a way for farmers to locate their cattle in the vast Alpine meadows.
The actual Alpabzug day is a jubilant and colorful affair. Locals, as well as tourists, gather in picturesque Alpine villages to witness the spectacle. As the cows and their herders descend from the mountains, the sound of the cowbells fills the air, creating a symphony that resonates throughout the valley.
The cows are often led by a “queen cow,” which is the leader of the herd and wears the most impressive headdress. The queen cow is a point of pride for the farmers and is given special treatment during the event.
Traditional Swiss music adds to the festive atmosphere. Spectators can also indulge in local culinary delights such as raclette, fondue, and various Swiss cheeses, along with regional wines and beverages.
The Alpabzug procession usually culminates in the village square, where the cows are paraded for all to admire. Here, prizes are awarded to the best-decorated cows and their owners, creating an air of friendly competition among farmers.
Here are some of the best local Alpabzugs for you to enjoy:
Ennetbürgen OK Alpabfahrt: 23 September
From 11:00 to 17:00 the village will be all things festive with a parade through the village. Restaurants are open with food and drinks, and market stalls provide local products for you to buy or just browse as the cows are led through one by one.
Entlebucher Alpabfahrt: 23 September
The village of Schüpfheim honours the seven alpine farming families who descend into the village with their cows at 11:00. The festival has twenty five market stalls with local products, a lot of cheese and Bratwurst, yodelling and alphorns.
Engelberger Herbstmarkt: 30 september
More than 30 local and regional vendors sell their mostly homemade products such as bread, cheese, jams, dried meat, tea, wine, wool and wood products to knitted and sewn items. The market is framed by the Farmers’ Association’s festival with musical entertainment and other exciting attractions.
Viehschau Herbstmarkt, Weggis: 30 September
Around 250 dairy cows will be on display with the most attractive chosen to be decorated. At 15:00 the breeders and the traditionally decorated cows make their way home. There is accompanying music, restaurants, prizes to be won, a market with agricultural products and regional and local handicrafts for sale.
Kerns near Melchsee-Frutt: 30 September
The program begins at 9:30 with agricultural machinery on exhibition at Restaurant Turm’s carpark. At 11:30 the local decorated cows, and even a sheep, are paraded through the village. There is music, yodelling, alphorns, flag-wavers and market stalls.
And, of course, following is the season for Chilbis (Autumn Fairs) that will tke place in many villages dotted all over the mountains. But more on that in a separate post.