Here it is again, that magical time of year filled with cowbells and fancily festooned farm animals. It is the Almabtrieb season once more. It feels like only yesterday the local cows danced out of the barns after a long dark winter to head up into the lush green pastures high upon the mountaintops.
Almabtrieb or Viehscheid simply mean “Cattle Drive”. The more literal translations are Almabtrieb, “Coming down from the alpine pastures” and Viehscheid, “Separation of the cattle”. After spending approximately 100 days in the flower rich sweet grasses of the “Almen” or Alpine meadows.
Steeped in tradition these colorful events are definitely worth seeking out if you are visiting any Alpine regions during Sept and October. For me personally they are an obsession. Though I have been to and thoroughly enjoyed the pageantry of the larger Almabtriebfests in the Allgaü and elsewhere, it is the small village ones I truly adore. Being able to walk down from the peeks fueled by the joyful excitement is truly magical.
I find it fascinating the decoration of leading cow, ‘Kranzkuh’; each is personal and very unique. Many times you find the initials of the farmer, a beloved Saint to protect the cows, even sayings in the local dialect. One of my favorite that I have seen in our area is “Ds Summa ist aussi, i muaß obi ins Tal“ basically it translates to “The Summer is over and back to the valley we return”. The handwork involved in all this decoration is equally as exciting as the event itself. From the giant heirloom bells used to chase away evil spirits, to the crepe paper twisted blossoms it is all so colorfully unique.
Many people ask me about the fancy headdresses the cows wear for this event and if the cows mind them. Last year I had the pleasure of being up on Spitzingsee with a group of herders as they put the headdress or “Buschen” on the cows. There was about 5-10 minutes of prancing about because of the heavy strange feeling of the headdress but then they settled right down. They do seem to enjoy their time in the barnyard once the long hike down is finished destroying each others headdresses. It is really quite a sight to see. I asked one of the farmers if the cows minded and I am not sure if he was being cheeky but he said the lead cow seems very upset when she has been usurped and is no longer given the honor of wearing the largest headdress. So, I will bow to his long experience with the cows.
You might come across a herd of undecorated cows, somberly coming through town. This means that there has been illness or loss of life either in the cattle or even in the farmer’s family and I get very choked up when I see them. It definitely lets you know if it has been a good year or not. I have noticed here in the Schliersee area those groups tend to pass through town very early.
My advice to folks visiting these alpine regions during the time of Almabtrieb is to drive carefully and cautiously as you never know when you might be coming around a corner and find yourself facing a large herd of fancily dressed cows and their hard working handlers attempting to safely bring the cows home in the traditional way. Please be respectful and patient. It is a high-pressure job for them. Always plan your travel accordingly and give yourself extra time. It is best to pull over when possible and just watch the beautiful historic procession pass you by.
American artist, photographer and professional wanderer who, after 20 years of roaming, put down roots in a 100 year old Bavarian farmhouse and fell in love with the Alpine village and its residents (both 2-legged and 4-legged).