Cow Parade

I’m on a bit of a tourist kick at the moment. For my last post, I wrote about where to take visitors in Swabia. This week’s topic: the cow parade. I had never heard of this tradition until last year, when colleagues of mine included it in their hiking weekend. I immediately thought “hey, I bet my boys would love that!” and my husband disagreed, saying they were too little and would be scared. Of cows? Please. Although, the bells are indeed very loud, and cows are kind of big. So we waited another year and just last weekend, I experienced the Viehscheid in the Allgäu (which follows the the Almabtrieb in Germany and Austria, known in Switzerland as the Alpabzug) This refers to the process of bringing the cows down from the alpine meadows, and returning them to their owners to spend the winter in barns. It involves a parade of cows decked out with flowers and wreaths, oom-pah-pah bands, traditional celebration food, beer, and cow bells. Lots of cow bells.

My first encounter with cow bells was while hiking in the Alps. The Alps are glorious for hiking, and on a leisurely stroll above the clouds one day, I found myself transported to a magical place. We couldn’t see down the steep mountain faces, the clouds covered everything below us. Ahead of us, there was a misty meadow above which a farmhouse and barn were nestled into the hillside. The sky was blue, the sun was gentle. And there was no sound. The cloud cover below somehow wiped out all other noises, and in the stillness all we heard was the music of the cow bells across the meadow. I fell in love with those bells.

On our way home, I procured one for the next Christmas gift for my family. This was no tourist trinket – we stopped at a farm supply store and bought the real thing, and a real leather strap to hold it. I’m surprised we didn’t buy two, because I can’t really believe I don’t have one at my own house. It would probably get used every day (“Kids… gong, gong … time for dinner! gong, gong…”)

My excitement at attending the Almabtrieb celebration is thus understandable. We chose a small one, so as to not overdo things for the kids. The festivities in the larger towns, such as Oberstdorf or Pfronten, involve thousands of cows and even more tourists. We opted for tiny Seeg, with just a hundred or so cows, and front-row parade viewing.

(a list of all the parades in the Allgäu can be found here and for Austria and Switzerland here)

If I actually owned a dirndle, this would have been the place to wear it. The locals were all dressed in their finest traditional costumes, and the oom-pah-pah music was already going strong when we arrived. After a quick snack and a look at the booths selling souvenir cow bells, hiking boots, and hats, we lined up to watch the cows parade through town. The video I posted on youtube gives you an idea of what that was like. Mostly it was like a cow parade, albeit a very loud one. The bells were deafening, and I was in heaven. The kids certainly enjoyed it, and they even got to photograph up close and pet the cows after they were penned up and put on display.

I was, perhaps, the only one who was so enthralled with the bells and the cows, the music and the atmosphere, that I stopped paying enough attention. In fact, I was so busy trying to capture the experience on video (and for this, one must be at the front to watch the parade, perhaps a tiny bit farther out to the street than the others, right?) that I was nearly trampled. Yep, almost trampled. People around me shouted at me to get out of the way because a loose-cannon weighing a ton or so was prancing straight toward me, but I couldn’t hear them over the din of those gigantic cow bells! As luck would have it, I turned just in time and skittered out of the way, while a stressed cow herder desperately tried to get his charge back in line. Note to self: never turn your back on a herd of cows when you are the only thing standing between the parade and a patch of grass. Alas, I survived and now we can all laugh about it! And you know what? I might be scared of cows in the future*!

This is a tourist experience I can highly recommend, as I can’t imagine anything like it in the US. In such a setting, I love the oom-pah-pah music, the greasy food, the beer, the Lederhosen, etc. It’s all part of the way that Germans (and probably the Swiss and Austrians, too) celebrate and enjoy life, and it is part of what makes life here charming.

*see sarcastic comment in 1st paragraph; nothin’ like an ‘I told you so’…