Bringing in the Cows of Albeuve

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In Albeuve, Switzerland

One of the most beautiful aspects of the farming life – from the point of view of a townie who doesn’t do any of the work – is the consistency of the traditions by which farmers regulate their year.  Transhumance – that is, taking the cows up the mountains to feast on the grasses in summer and bringing them down to the lowlands in winter – is an ancient process and there was something really wonderful about being welcomed in to witness this important day in the farming calendar.

And the event in the town of Albeuve, in the Gruyere region of Switzerland, was truly welcoming.  Yes, the day is about the locals getting together and celebrating the cows’ return, and yes, the locals hang out together drinking and eating, but as obvious outsiders (and you can’t have more of a townie than me) we were also made to feel part of the proceedings.

The Trooping of the Cows

The Desalps, as this process of transhumance is called in French, is a long affair, and doesn’t just involve a bunch of cows being escorted down a mountain in a haphazard, in-your-own-time-cows kind of way – oh no.  It involves the cows getting bedecked with floral crowns and having polished bells placed around their necks.  It is a chance for the populace to hail the producers of the milk for the region’s famous cheese: Gruyere.

It also gives you, as a tourist, a chance to pay tribute to the efforts of the farmers, who lead their animals from the summer grazing lands.  Children are involved as well as adults, some driving the calves, others just toddling alongside their parents.  This sense of family and community was wonderful to see, as was the look of happiness on the faces of all those involved.  Everybody was obviously enjoying the day and their smiles were infectious.

We spoke to a woman in her thirties, whose family were historically cattle farmers.  While her mother still lives in the town, she and her young family live in a big city.  She said it was important for her to bring her children back at this time of year and that the procession was something her son really looked forward to.  I suppose that’s the appeal of traditions – they’re there to draw you ‘home’ when you have to live a different type of life far away and let you cling hold of something you can feel is slipping away from you.  And if we are outsiders, they give us the chance to see or experience a way of life that has hardly changed in centuries.

Albeuve is an up-and-downy town, and therefore where you stand really can affect your view and experience of the proceedings.  Originally we stood on the main street and the cows passed by maybe a foot away from us.  Below is a picture of that street – you can see how close the cows are getting to the crowds.

It was nice to see them up close, with their lovely head-dresses, but what was particularly interesting was hearing just how loud their bells were – it was like having a bunch of crazy Quasimodos walking by.

Being so close also made you appreciate just how beautifully behaved and ordered the cows were as they came along the path; something you are particularly grateful for when you see one with an impatient look in her eye, and an obvious inclination to trot.  Cows are surprisingly light on their feet and luckily seem to have a good sense of self-awareness, so when they did over-take each other, it was safely.  Car drivers could learn a lot.

However, we decided to move to watch the next group, and positioned ourselves on a sloping grass bank right next to the road where the cows make their grand entry into town.  This gave us a fantastic view of the proceedings, as well as a soothing view of the town and the hills around it.  This is definitely where I’d recommend anyone to position themselves, because you get to see the cows come down the road, and go up the main street.

It is also possible to see some of the proceedings from the train station, which is elevated above the town.  This made for an amusing spot to watch the next part of the animals’ journey.  After going down through the town, they are made to come up the slight hill on the other side and cross the train-tracks and the road next to it.   The cows seemed obedient enough, but when the goats came to crossing… oh la la!

Sadly their break for freedom was curtailed.  But they caused some mischief, which was probably all they really wanted to do anyway.

I also think a special shout out should go out to the lads who patiently came along after each procession and scraped up the worst of the poo.  Bravo, boys.  Bravo.

Everything Else

While you’re waiting for the next batch of cows to trot by, there is plenty to keep you busy, particularly if you’re hungry.  There were lots of food and drink options, including local specialities – and all of it looked freshly made!

It was sweet that the local school had a stand set up, selling cakes and treats.  The teachers and some pupils manned the stall, which was lovely – but not as lovely as the decorations.  At first I thought I loved the dangling cows, but then I saw that Thomson and Thompson had some how managed to find their way to Albeuve.  I find this most impressive, since they have no sense of direction.

There were also stalls touting souvenirs, antiques/bric-a-brac, which kept me busy for a while, and there were various special events going on.  Apparently.  We kept missing everything.  There were definitely Alpine horns being played at some point, because we saw the players as they were packing up.

A small patch of grass was given over to some farm animals who, if they were awake and in the mood, could be petted.

But for the most part the visitors of Albeuve seemed to be happy just getting themselves a drink and chatting.  I couldn’t get over just how many people were out with their babies and children and despite the presence of alcohol the atmosphere never veered away from being family-friendly.

Eglise Albeuve

One more point: it’s definitely worth popping into the church in the centre of town – the Eglise Albeuve.  It’s interesting because though its walls are plain, the altar is surprisingly fancy, and there are a number of attractive modern additions: the stained glass windows, the Stages of the Cross and the pulpit.  The windows were particularly striking, with a lovely use of warm, autumnal colours.

It also makes a perfect spot to just sit in comparative silence away from the busyness of the events outside.

So In Summary

Despite the fact that there isn’t really a lot to it, it is amazing just how much of a positive impression the day left on me.  It’s hard to explain why exactly, but I suppose in the end it’s because of the way the locals are.  You can tell they love their work, their animals, and their land.  By the time you leave Albeuve, you love them all too.

Practical Information

In 2017, the Desalps event was on the 30th September and I believe it is always on the last weekend of the month.  It starts at nine in the morning and continues until two o’clock in the afternoon.  A leaflet is available showing the schedule.  The farmers come down with their cows in predetermined slots, but we found that after twelve-ish, they went off timetable quite a bit.

There are also plenty of events aimed at children: milk a plastic cow, pet a real one, peer at calves, goats and some lovely ponies.  There’s also enough space for children to run around and entertain themselves while waiting for the cows to arrive.

The event has its own website (in French) which describes what will happen on the day and shows you pictures from years past:

Just one piece of advice: don’t wear sandals.

How to Get There

Albeuve can be reached by the well synchronised trains.  The  site will guide you there.

Honestly, the journey is worth the trip by itself: the region is just so beautiful and with the autumn leaves colouring the landscape, it’s simply magical.  The pictures below were all taken from the train, on the journey between Montreux and Albeuve.




















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