It’s an expression I’ve never quite understood, but Switzerland’s take on this involves singing farmers in traditional garb, pig races, a farmer’s market (bauernmarkt), and, of course, herds of cows clad in flower collars and giant bells, all descending from the mountains to winter pastures.
The event, called Alpabfahrt (literally: Alp descent or departure), takes place each year in Switzerland’s sleepy mountain towns, with each locale marking the occasion with its own special traditions. Stumbling across this in my Lonely Planet a few months ago, I decided that Urnäsch was the place to visit this year, given it was granted its own little paragraph in my travel guide.
A two-hour drive from Basel along winding mountain roads, Urnäsch is tucked away against Switzerland’s eastern borders, a pinky-finger length away from Lichtenstein on a map. (By train, you’re looking at nearly 3 hours plus 2 transfers.) Lucky for us, Mel has a car and Niall was happy to drive it. The first descents were scheduled to begin around 9am, so Jen and I caught the 5:45am tram to Mel and Niall’s, where we loaded the car with overnight bags, four humans, and one fluffy Samoyed pup named Koda. We were on the road just after six, cruising through the mountain mist and into Urnäsch with plenty of time to find parking near the town square.
Already, hikers with brightly-colored day packs were stepping off of trains as we walked up the hill to town. We found a little bakery that sold gipfelis and an amazing cheese tart, so we settled into a table at the corner of the street. The town was barely awake, with several bakeries and coffee shops opening their doors to a couple here or a person with a newspaper there.
We inquired at two different bakeries as to where we could see the descent and what time it might begin, and both places claimed to have front-row seating for the event. We were doubtful at first, but realized later that anywhere in the town square was perfect for catching a glimpse of the cows.
If you’ve never been to one of these, let me describe it for you. You’re sitting at your little table, watching the sun come up and sipping coffee, when suddenly you hear these lilting voices that could belong to humans or the wind. You look up, and notice people slowly moving toward the sides of the street, looking away towards the mountains. You join them.
The procession begins with a handful of little goats and sheep being led by children, after which come three cows, each decked out with its own huge bell and flower collar. Behind them are four farmers dressed in colorful Swiss attire, and they’re singing – not with words, just tonal mountain songs. After the farmers come the rest of the herd, all gathered together and plain-looking; only the best 3 cows get the honor of wearing the heavy bells. (My question is, how does one determine the best cows? Do they produce the most milk? Do they lead the other cows in pasture games or walks? Answer: Apparently both.) Bringing up the rear of the herd is the farmer who owns the cows. He’s followed by a horse and cart carrying all of the cheese-making tools they used up in the Alps all summer. After one descent, I watched a local woman approach the farmer with a tray of Rivella, a Swiss soft drink that’s made from milk products and whey but looks like and kind of tastes like soda.
What I didn’t realize is that there is not one descent; the day is punctuated by different descents as each of the herds comes down from the mountains. By the time the third cow parade came through, the streets were swollen with tourists like us, scrambling for the sweetest photo spots, which were the ones that didn’t capture the town church in the background, which was covered with scaffolding and construction workers who were working on it.
One recommendation I have, apart from arriving early, is to bring a fluffy dog. Koda was a hit not only with children and adults, but with the actual cows. More than once, as the cows marched by, one or two would notice Koda and peel off from the herd to come and investigate. (This rogue behavior is probably why those cows did not earn bells.) It was equal parts exciting and frightening, because who knew what the cow was thinking or planning on doing?
We watched a few of the processions, then headed into the main square where the farmers market was taking place. Mel and I lined up for some gooey raclette with bread squares while Niall and Jen staked out a prime viewing location for a pig race that was scheduled to begin at 11. After 15 minutes of waiting in the raclette line and finally nearing the front, Mel and I had to make a difficult choice: skip the pig race and get raclette, or ditch the raclette and catch the pigs. We reasoned we could get raclette later, but it was still painful to duck out of line and leave cheese dreams behind us. (Spoiler: We did not get raclette; the line wrapped around the street and none of us could justify waiting in it.)
The pig race was exciting. We watched while a group of barefoot boys sang traditional Swiss songs in what looked like lederhosen somewhere nearby. After the race, we went for a short hike on the outskirts of town before returning to the market to sit at the tables and drink beer. There, we ran into some of our colleagues who had driven down for the day and were preparing to return to Basel in the afternoon. This is worth noting for anyone wanting to make a day trip of it rather than an overnight.
Still, I was glad we went overnight. A woman sitting at our table suggested we detour through Appenzell on our way to our inn, so we hopped in the car and drove. Appenzell is also a small town with a cobblestone town square, but the streets are lined with bright houses in bold paint colors. Very beautiful, very Swiss, and very worth a visit.
After, we drove another 20 minutes down a zig-zagging mountain road to our little apartment for the evening. It was very much in the middle of nowhere, though we located a restaurant just down the road that promised Swiss food.
This road was clearly extremely popular with motorcyclists; even the restaurant had permanent signs marking which seating areas only offered space for motorcyclists. We sat outside sipping Quollfrisch and eating cheesy, delicious rosti. With the sun still up, we explored a hiking trail in the nearby woods, which looked like we’d stepped into a Grimm fairytale (minus the horror of witches that want to cook you in their oven and eat you).
The evening was spent playing cards, and in the morning, we awoke to a chilly fog crawling across the hills. I tried to go for a walk, but our apartment was the only one in Switzerland not located next to sprawling hiking trails. Instead, my feet sunk into spongy, cold grass and I managed to traipse over a bridge to where the grass ended in barbed wire before I turned back.
We decided to try our luck at the restaurant, which opened at 10, and was surrounded by hiking trails. We opted for an hour-long route and hiked up into the mountain just as a rain cloud was moving in. By the time we reached the restaurant, we were cold and wet in the best way – rainy hikes, that is the best way – and in need of breakfast. Fortunately, the restaurant offered gipfelis, orange juice, and coffee, just enough of a refuel to ready us for the ride home.
(It took a lot of willpower to not fill this entry with cow puns.)