The Cows Come Home
Margaret, September 27, 2003


The cows came home today. And, really, itís about time. The weatherís getting colder and snow is beginning to accumulate on the mountain tops. If the cows didnít come home about now, itíd be hard for them to come home later.

This annual migration of the cows is called Almabtrieb and is still practiced in Tirol as throughout history. (Tirol is a province in the Austrian Alps just south of Bavaria.) At the end of September, the cattle, which have been grazing in the alpine meadows all summer, are rounded up and herded down through the villages to their winter pastures in the valley. Of course, cows migrating to the valley is as much of a reason as any for a festival, so the whole affair has become a grand autumn celebration. The cattle are dressed up in colorful face gear with big feather plumes and religious pictures atop their heads. The herdsmen attach various-sized bells around the necks of the beasts with multi-hued collars and the resultant sound is a not-unpleasant cacophany. In fact, you can hear the cows coming through before you can see them.

Ben and I took a trip down to Austria to see the Almabtrieb today. We initially drove to a little town called Reith which I had heard has a good festival. But when we arrived, there was nothing set up, no crowds of people, no signs on the billboards. This must be the wrong place, we thought. So we looked at the index of the Austria map and sure enough there were a half-dozen Reithís in Austria. Hmm. So, instead, of trying them all, we headed to a nearby town, Hopfgarten, where we were in luck.

Driving south through Austria between summer holiday and ski season is rather pleasant. The autobahns arenít too packed with cars and the mountains have just begun to wear caps of white. From my apartment, the Alps are on the horizon Ė a not-too-distant, but not-not-very-close image. Driving towards and through them, the mountains become three-dimensional and then loom up, beautifully, all around. Hopfgarten is a typical little town in Tirol with itís church and surrounding cobblestone pedestrian way, flanked by restaurants and gasthauses, banks and bakeries. The town becomes quite steep on one side as it rises up toward a crestline and in the opposite direction another mountain raises the horizon equally high.

After finding a small side street on which to park, we followed the crowds (by which I mean elderly Frenchmen and women, arriving by tourist bus) to the center of the town, where the typical small-town fest was set up. Restaurants and pubs had their fest benches out, all crushed full of folks drinking their morning beer. Hawkers had out their best tourist-worthy cow bells on display along with the usual beer steins and felt hats. A couple of children played traditional music on accordian and guitar as their mother sold pastries beside them. Tourists and locals alike crowed the sidewalks, craning their heads to get the first glimpse of the bedecked cows.

We sat for a while and then we heard them: cow bells and shouts from the crowd to our far left. And then they meandered on through Ė about twenty or thirty cows, dressed up as mentioned. You could just see them thinking, as their heads bobbed under the weight of their headdresses: ďOh, man. This is so humiliating!Ē A couple younger cows tried to make a run for it (cow-style); as they wandered off to the right, a herder came and nudged them back to the main path. Cameras clicked; camcorders rolled. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Ben and I wandered around the town a while and were on our way out when we we heard the noise again: clang, clang, clang. We looked. It was another herd of cattle coming through, dressed up like the other, sauntering through the town. We let the cows pass by and then followed them a while as we walked back to the car. Outside the scenic, historic center of Hopfgarten, the cows looked funny and out-of-place. As they walked along, led toward their winter feeding grounds, cars sped by on the main road, shoppers emerged with full bags from the central grocery store, and the mountains rose all around.