Autumn is a time of celebrations in many European countries. The air is cool, the landscape turns golden and traditional harvest festivals take place throughout countries such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In Alpine regions, there are also festivals when cattle are herded from mountain pastures down to the valleys.
During September and October in the alpine regions of Europe, such as the Tyrol, Bavaria, and the Engadine region of Switzerland, there is a major event called Almabtrieb. A flower adorned cow parade, if you will. Whole villages and hundreds of visitors gather to take part in this unusual celebration. They watch as families lead their cattle from the high alpine pastures where they’ve grazed all summer back down to the valleys before the first snow.
The cows are decorated with garlands and big cow bells and one or more are designated as the leads. Called crown cows, they wear an elaborate crown that is handmade from local flowers, fir and spruce branches, wood shavings, feathers and brightly colored ribbons. Sometimes the farmer’s wives all gather together to work on the ornate headdresses as they can take many days of meticulous work to create. The only time farmers don’t decorate their herd is when a fatal accident has occurred during the summer on the mountain or if there has been a tragic loss in the farmer’s family. Even though the cows are still being brought down, most of the festivals this year have been cancelled because of Covid-19. The traditional cattle drive festival is an unforgettable spectacle and hopefully they all will return next year.
Locals wear their traditional dirndl’s and lederhosen and line the road leading through town waiting for the colorful Almabtrieb procession to arrive. You hear the cow bells grow louder and louder as they approach. Once in the village, everyone joins in the celebration with live music and folk dancing. Most villages have beer tents and food stalls where you can taste cheese and meats from the farmers directly.
Typically, the fall harvest festivals mark the end of the harvest season. Local farmers have brought in their last crop of hay, harvested their vineyards and orchards, their farm’s grain, vegetables have been picked and wood has been cut and stored for the long winter ahead.
Fruits have been made into jams and schnapps, vegetables have been canned, cheese has been aged and sausages and bacon have been cured. It is now time to take their produce and handmade crafts to be sold at the farmers market stalls.
The SalzburgLand region of Austria is one of our favorites when it comes to the harvest celebrations. Villages in this region have the most artistically designed displays of hay figures and decorations unlike any we have seen. The villages celebrate with large processions of classic tractors and horse drawn wagons carrying large creations all made of hay. The festivals include performances from marching bands and local clubs, horse mounted whip cracking clubs.
The festivals are a time for the villagers to socialize. Everyone wears their typical regional costume and enjoy parades that often end at the town church where the altar is decorated with bundles of wheat, vegetables and fruit to give thanks for a good year. Later everyone gathers together and there is country fair atmosphere with traditional music and folk dancing. There are booths featuring homemade specialties, cheese and schnapps tastings as well as traditional handicraft exhibits.
There are no shortage of fall festivals and celebrations to attend in Europe, from the world famous Octoberfest to wine and cider festivals, pumpkin and apple festivals, music and opera, even hiking festivals. Should you happen to be in the rural areas of Austria, Germany or Switzerland next year during the fall, keep an eye out for information about upcoming festivals as there are hundreds of them held in the small towns and villages. Just think about how fun it would be to sit at a large outdoor table filled with locals enjoying a wonderful mountain panorama. Order a cold beer and a lunch of alpine cheese, homemade farmer’s bread and butter and a varieties of pork and game from the region. Watch as old and young enjoy traditional folk music and dancing, it is a fun way to experience local customs at their best. At the end of the day you will realize why autumn harvest time is still celebrated in Europe.