Almabtrieb, when the cows come home!
It was the beginning of Autumn and the leaves were already changing colors. Upper reaches of Alps had already received sporadic snowfall. The village of Westendorf in Austria, where we were staying, was hiding behind one of the gentle hills, in the valley. We had reached Westendorf to witness the annual celebration of the Almabtrieb , Alpine Cow Festival. During the beginning of summer, all the cattle and sheep are taken to the higher slopes to graze on alpine pastures. When it starts getting cold at the end of Summer or beginning of Autumn, the village celebrates when the cows are brought back home.
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Arriving at a small Alpine village
We congratulated ourselves, as we got off from the train at Westendorf, Tyrol, Austria, for the meticulous planning done 6 months earlier. We were on the last leg of our European Journey spanning over 100 days. Literally the last country before we were to head back to India. There were ups and there were downs, as is normal in such long trips. However, it did not matter anymore for we were here on the appointed date! Now only nature could play the spoilsport by snowing.
It was early afternoon but there was a nip in the air, which reminded us that summer too was in its last leg in this Alpine region. The Westendorf station was very small and clean and the few people who got off with us had already disappeared, presumably they were all residents of this region and none of them were travellers like us. As we waited for our ride to our hotel, several thoughts pass through our minds, one the most important was, “were we even at the right place?”, considering there were no tourists. A small voice in my head says emphatically, that we were at the right place.
Presently, Clive, the owner of the Inn, beckoned to us and we were off towards his inn in the Village Westendorf.
Westendorf is a small village in the Tyrolean district of Kitzbühel. The village is located on a plateau in the Brixen valley, surrounded by the Alps. Clive chattily said that Westendorf was one of the best Ski spots in the region. One glance at the emerald green gentle slopes only corroborated his claims. He was happy because, after a busy summer, the ski tourist season was about to start, making it a 365 days destination.
As we got closer, we could discern strains of popular music. The music grew louder as we took the final left turn and entered the village. The festivities had already begun!
It looked as if the entire populace had descended on to the streets to mingle with the tourists. Our curiosity and excitement was already kindled to a point where we just dumped our luggage in the room and rushed back to the happening street.
Every inch of the busy street was occupied by street shops or the people, which to an untrained eye, seemed to be randomly walking here and there but we were actually hopping from one food stalls to another and then for their dose of alimentation then to one or more of the many drinks stall to wash it all down.
Scattered in between were shops selling local handicrafts, woolens and clothes by old women. Their lined faces cracking into a smile when we showed interest in their wares, made our day. For a minute, we thought if it was already Christmas Season?
The sun had already set but the festivities continued into the night. There were bands playing and people dancing. The next morning was the day of Almabtrieb, the day for which we had planned and were now here. After shaking a couple of the mandatory legs, we called it a day.
Almabtrieb, Festival of Cows Coming Home
Those who have been to the Alps in Summer can become voluble when describing the beauty of the rolling high altitude meadows dotted with cows and sheep and the odd cowherd. These Alpine pastures are an integral part of the lives of farmers living in the towns and villages.
Clive walked us to a small clearing, a bit away from the village, with a stage, on which young singers were yodeling, and lot of stalls selling Schnapps, Schnitzels, Beer, Potato fries and so on. It was very clear from the setting, what was expected of the visitors! We got ourselves a few shots of Schnapps (white brandy with a fruity taste) and bowl of potato fries. Added to that was a bright sunny morning implying that there was not going to be a change in the schedule.
He had earlier explained the festival of Almabtrieb to us, in his inimitable humorous style, over our breakfast. Almabtrieb is basically the end of a long spring and summer vacation for the cows, sheep and horses, when they eat the best food, drink crystal clear water and sleep when they like. This is marked with festivities so that they do not feel too bad that the party was over. Weren’t we envious?
He said, that from time immemorial, herds of cattle were taken to high altitude pastures during Summer and left there for grazing with very few herders to tend to them. Come Autumn, they are all brought back to lowlands pastures for the rest of the year. To celebrate coming back home, the herders extensively decorate their cattle with bells, ribbons, photos, mirrors and colorful flowers. Almabtrieb, actually means, “come down from the mountain pastures”.
It is said the milk of cows that have fed on the high pastures, makes better cheese. There is another reason. When most of the cattle have gone for the summer, the lowland pastures gets recharged and gets ready for winter grazing, during this time. This transhumance is practiced in all the Alpine countries, like Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy. Out of them, Austria holds the record for the most number of cattle-heads. More than half-a-million herded by about 70,000 farmers!
We, in our minds, had started imagining 500,000 heads of cattle passing through Westendorf, when Clive said there were hundreds of villages where this happened and Westendorf would probably have about a few thousand heads. That was a good number for us too.
The Cow Parade
Clive left us to fend for ourselves and we took our positions along the street, armed with our cameras. Soon the street filled up with visitors and villagers. Most of them dressed in the traditional Austrian alpine attire, the Dirndl by the girls and the women and Lederhosen by the boys and the men.
Dirndl is a very loose skirt made of traditional material, falling below the knee and held by shoulder straps. The blouse is frilly and often puffed at the shoulder. At the waist is a traditional apron, which in some cases are stitched to skirt itself. A scarf or a flower-wreath on the head completes the attire.
Lederhosen, actually means leather pants. It could be of varying length but mostly ending at the knee. It is often paired with checked or plain shirt. While there are many styles available; 1 knife pocket, two side pockets, 1 hip pocket and a drop-front flap is mandatory. A lederhosen is often held by a pair of braces. Sometimes a hat, decorated with flowers is also worn.
Voila, soon there was a faint clanging of cow-bells! In the distance we could make out tiny images of cows and cowherds, gradually growing larger as they neared us. On a normal day it would have been a high-decibel cacophony, but we were so enthralled by the sight that we hardly noticed. To us it was almost musical when people were applauding to the rhythm of clanging bells and shouting out cheers. Some of them, presumably family members or friends, even called out to the cowherds by name.
Like every year, this year too one cow was selected to lead the cow-parade. The Head-cow or Kranzrind, as it is called, had the biggest of the bell and looked like large kettlebells and the most elaborate and beautiful Fuikl (headgear or crown). The practice of tying bells around the neck has been passed down from pre-christian era. The reason is to protect them from evil demons or wild animals that might, otherwise, attack the herd.
Soon a few hundred more cows and herders passed, most of them colorfully decorated, some of them even better than the cow in the lead and all of them had the bells. There were even children doing their bit by herding small goats and sheep. Someone in the crowd said, “Hold on there’s more coming in batches”, so we stood our ground at our prime spot.
A few of the cows also had a photo attached to the crown. While many of them were of Jesus and Mary, some of them were of holy St Leonhard, the healer of the working animals. This is to thank them for an accident free summer.
All this while the stage at the clearing was busy with music and dancing. Just then a group of men danced the Schuhplattler. It is a rhythmic clapping, stomping, striking the soles of the shoes in time with accompaniment played on an accordion.
Life in the Alpine Pastures
The Alpine pastures make one-quarter of the total grazing land in Austria and most of them are in the Tyrol region. There are permanent alpine stone huts or lodges which are empty during the winter but come summer, the owner or the caretaker occupies that.
The pastures may be owned by a company or by a few farmers. In the case of company, it is the employees who come to take care of the cattle which come there for some payment from the farmers. All in all, it is teamwork to keep the tradition running.
In the morning the cattle are left to graze and in the evening they are brought back for milking. The question is, what do they do with the milk?
Some of the farmers, manufacture butter milk and cheese. There are many who take their milk to a nearby milk pipeline so that it could be sent to a processing facility. Some of the best cheese is produced from alpine milk.
One of the farmers we met told us, that life could be pretty lonely with very few people up there and there is a lot of hard work of grazing, rounding up the cattle, milking them and processing or selling the milk and so on.
What else to do in Westendorf
Once all the libations & gastronomic indulgences were over and after generally enjoying the warm lazy morning, we felt the need to burn the excess calories.
We had already noticed quite a few people doing hang gliding and landing at another clearing close by. We were not going to try that, but it gave us an idea to get to the place where they jump off.
Westendorf, also being a ski resort, had cables cars going to the higher ski slopes. The two stage cable car took us so high behind a couple of hills that Westendorf was no longer visible. During the journey we saw that the leaves were already changing colors and a few of them had started shedding too, announcing the arrival of Autumn.
At the top we saw that there had already been snowfall. It looked quite fresh. We just threw a couple of customary snowballs at each other and went off to explore the peak and locate the jumping off point for the hang gliders. Soon we noticed that these flying humans were originating from another mountain. There were many of them, probably to make most of the last few sunny days.
In the summer, one could hike up to the alpine pastures and see for oneself how the cattle and people live. Unfortunately we had not planned on Alpine hikes for want of time. However we found even walking for 30 minutes in the crisp morning on the tracks near the village, was rejuvenating.
The aficionados of gastronomy are spoilt for choices and one can find any European cuisine here. Turkish too if one is keen. And that is saying a lot for a small village.
When is the festival
Almabtrieb is generally held, before Autumn, during the weekends of end of September and beginning of October. The dates maybe advanced if there are untimely snowfall at the pastures. However the practices vary according to the regions and villages.
For the last several decades, the tourism department is actively involved in scheduling the festival and promoting it, to make it attractive for the tourists.
One of the old timers said, “Even 20 years back, the farmers would come with their cattle at day break but now because of tourists, the event is at a more comfortable time”.
It is always a good idea to use the internet and find out the exact dates for the region one wants to visit.
So this is the time to head to the Alps!
- Traditional Alpine Attire
Dirndl is a very loose skirt made of traditional material, falling below the knee and held by shoulder straps. It looks much like a pinafore. The blouse is frilly and often puffed at the shoulder. At the waist is a traditional apron, which in some cases are stitched to skirt itself. A scarf or a flower-wreath on the head completes the attire.
Lederhosen, actually means leather pants. It could be of varying length but mostly ending at the knee. It is often paired with checked or plain shirt. While there are many styles available, 1 knife pocket, two side pockets, 1 hip pocket and a drop-front flap is mandatory. A lederhosen is often held by a pair of braces. Sometimes a hat, decorated with flowers is also worn.
- The Alps comes from the word Alp (plural – Alpen) which means mountain pastures.
- Almabtrieb comes from the word Alm which also means mountain pastures.
- There are nearly 2000 alpine stone huts in Tyrol for use by herders during summer.
- Transhumance is a seasonal full scale migration of livestock owing to the weather. Typically, they are moved to highlands in summer for the fresh and healthy pastures and to lowlands in the winter for protection from low temperature.
- The idiom, Till the cows come home, may as well have originated here.
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