Every autumn, numerous villages in the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany celebrate the Almatrieb, the return of the cows and their herders from the Alps, where they have spent the summer.  This tradition is marked with festivals including food, music, and topped with the cattle parades and Viehscheid, where the cattle are separated and returned to the owning families.  The cows are decorated with flowers and bells to celebrate the safe return.  The festivals occur from mid-September to early October, and this year we decided to visit one in the Tirol region of Austria on my birthday.cows-come-home-sep-2010-002We drove down the night before and stayed in a nice little hotel called the Hotel Alpin Scheffau. It was about a four hour drive, so even though I left work a little early, we got there kind of late on Friday evening. The desk clerk advised us to go to the restaurant right away, as it closed at 9 pm, so we left our stuff in the car and went to eat. We were pretty proud of ourselves, as we managed to get through the ordering and everything with our limited German. There were apparently two hotel restaurants, and we wound up in the pizzeria; it was really quite good and we got to see the chef make the dough. There was a nice little surprise when we finished up and asked to pay the bill; it seems that the dinner was included in the hotel price.

The room was nice also. It was a family room, with a loft above the main sleeping area with the second bed–so Rebecca got a nice big bed to herself instead of a pullout bed, which she often gets in the triple rooms in Europe. We almost wished we were staying another couple of nights to enjoy the place. It would definitely be a great base to use if someone was going there during ski season, although I imagine it would be a lot more crowded!

In the morning we ate breakfast (also included) at the hotel, and then drove about 30 minutes through the mountain roads and little villages. It was cloudy, but not actually raining, and not too cold, so it was a beautiful drive. We drove through Kirchberg, which was supposed to be having an Almabtrieb fest, but it wasn’t obvious where the festival was going to be, so we kept on the road to Brixen im Thale. This road took us right through the middle of town, and when we saw the sign and the food tents, we knew we were in the right place! We found a place to park, not too far away, and walked down the road to the festival.

cows-come-home-sep-2010-007We were early, so there weren’t many people around. We watched some hot air balloons and enjoyed some Kaffee and Kuchen. I also had my eye on some cheese, which some Austrian ladies were cutting and wrapping for sale. While we were sitting at a table having our coffee, an older couple sat down beside us. They spoke German and we spoke English, but we tried our little bit of German and we ended up having a sort of conversation with them. They were staying in the area for a week and were having a good time; we found out that the balloon rides cost 200 Euro (!), and I think we got them to understand that I worked with computers and Roy was a teacher over the Internet. They also found out it was my birthday and asked Roy what he got me for a present!

The official start of the festival seemed to be when the band came marching down the street. The cars had to give way while they came in, led by the conductor and several ladies carrying little barrels. As the band took the stage and started playing, the ladies came around the tables and Roy discovered that they were carrying Schnapps in those little barrels (1 Euro a shot). Roy had some and said it was okay.

We wandered around a little and watched the balloons and the pony express ride. The cows were supposed to come around 1130, so we found a spot on the side of the street and Roy bought some potato pancake things which we enjoyed. The cows were a little late (obviously they can’t exactly keep to a specific time schedule), but finally we heard the cowbells clanging and saw the cows coming home, right down the street through the middle of town. The cars that were on the road just had to pull over to the side and stop. The herders tried to keep the cows in line, but we did see one cow bump into a car right in front of us.

cows-come-home-sep-2010-020cows-come-home-sep-2010-054After the cows came a few horses with riders, and then the tractor parade. Several folks in each of these waves were carrying bottles (of Schnapps?) and shared drinks with random people in the crowd (I gather people they knew–or perhaps the people in the families they were returning the cows too). The cows went jangling on down the street; we followed them a little way but since we didn’t know where they were going to stop, we didn’t go too far. A second wave of cows came as we were walking down the street back toward the fest area, so we watched those as well, and then went back to the fest area. There were several kids eating cotton candy, and Rebecca wanted some, so we hunted around for it. There were a lot of tents and stalls selling food, drinks, and crafts. I watched an old man stitching on what looked like some of the leather accoutrements the cows were wearing. In an interesting contrast, about three feet from him was a girl wearing the traditional Austrian dress, talking on a cell phone.

It was a lot more crowded by that time, so we bought a hunk of the Alpine cheese, a cotton candy for Rebecca, and some pastry things for Roy, and decided to head home. As we were walking back to the car, we heard some cow bells jingling, and through the houses we could see some decorated cows in a field. We didn’t want to go into someone’s yard, but as we continued up the road to our car, we came to a place where we could go down a side street, and there in a big field we could see a bunch of cows–and also several people standing by the fence taking pictures.

These cows had obviously been returned to their owners, and a couple of young men were chasing them down and trying to get the headdresses off. Surprisingly, the cows didn’t seem eager to have those things taken off; those boys had to chase them down and wrestle the decorations off. We watched them for a little while; I’m sure they thought we were strange, taking pictures of them and those cows. It was a lot of fun to watch, though; I thought it was the best part of the day.

cows-come-home-sep-2010-056We had one more little adventure; as we were driving out of the town, we suddenly came face to face with yet another herd of cows, coming the opposite direction. Fortunately, we were right at a place to turn in to a little parking area, so Roy turned in and I hopped out of the car and got a couple of really good pictures of this family’s cows coming home.

The rain held off until we were fairly on our way home, so despite a long delay where we think we were at the end of a long line of cars stuck behind another group of cows, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. Just a little local festival in a tiny village (I read later Brixen im Thale has a population of about 2600), but the Alpine area was beautiful, and experiencing a bit of the local tradition was something to remember.

See the photo gallery.

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