Désalpe- The Day Swiss Cows Take to the Streets

No wonder people love Switzerland.  It’s a place where even the cows party.  In October villagers throw a street bash in celebration of the livestock.

Cows were so commonplace in my childhood growing up in the Midwest, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would go out of their way to watch a herd of cattle, but during the désalpe, the day when cows come down from the mountains to the valley is a popular event, as much a part of Swiss tradition as Swiss cheese.

decorated cows

decorated cows

Thousands of visitors jam the cobblestone streets of Saint-Cergue perched on the Swiss side of the Jura, to applaud the herds of cows and sheep that parade through town. The désalpe festival honors the fat, four -legged fellows who keeps the country supplied in butter, milk and cheese.

The shepherds and herdsmen leave the highlands at the crack of dawn to arrive in the Swiss village on the lower slopes of the Jura mountains early in the day. The lead cows, wearing flowered headgear as elaborate as new brides wear, meander through town mooing.  Leather collars a foot-wide hang around their necks, which attach to cow bells the size of lampshades.

For 24 hours at the end of summer, the quiet, ski village turns into a giant block party.  The sidewalks and town square are filled with stands where merchants sell local Swiss specialties; raclette, crepes, sausages, soups, beer and wine.  At overturned wine barrels tourists knock back white wine served in traditional tiny cups barely bigger than shot glasses.

Big burly-bearded men in jeans play the accordion, flute and violin.  Bands of musicians dressed in traditional attire, black smocks embroidered with mountain flowers, black hats and gray pants, representing different mountain villages play the cor des alpes. The red-faced men blow into the the10-foot long straw-colored alpine horns creating sounds as forlorn as the nights of solitude that herders endure in the alpine pastures.  Local choral groups sing equally mournful tunes.  A short, stocky man in a black suit cackles when he demonstrates his whip cracking clearing a 100-foot circle in the crowd.  A flag thrower twirls the red Swiss flag with a white cross.

Swiss horns

Swiss horns

In Switzerland the cow is sacred.  Senntumsmalerei, herd painting, is a special part of Swiss folk art, depicting the semi annual pilgrimage of the cows up and down the mountain.

In the spring another festival will honor the cows as they return up to the highlands for grazing in the summer.  Most likely, I will be there paying homage.  After seeing the désalpe, I’ll never take cows for granted again.

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12 Comments

      • Actually there used to be a cow market at Easter each year in the village where I grew up, but that was just business, not some ceremonic event. No, my blog is still offline.

  1. What a wonderful part of the world you live in! I grew up deadly afraid of cows that grazed along pastures in the country where I lived…Such a sight might change my perception of them:)

    Blessings,
    Clara.

  2. Ah, now you are making me all nostalgic for my days back in France/Swiss! This was always one of my favorite traditions. The air was just starting to become crisp and the leaves beginning to fall but with just enough warmth of the sun to keep the chill off as we enjoyed the day meandering throughout the village. Oh! And don’t forget the “little red train” that would take us up and down the mountain to the village. That was part of the whole experience as well! The kids and I would play “I spy with my little eye..” all the way up and down! Thanks for the warm memories of our days gone by.

    • Aw I can just picture you and the girls playing “I spy” as the little red train chugged up the mountainside. How did they grow up so fast?

  3. What a great description of a traditional event! I’m on my way to an apple festival…I don’t think there will be cows or alp horns!! RATS!

  4. What a delightful, entertaining and enlightening post,Pat! I always look forward to your stories for I know I will be transported into your world. Who would ever think that a cow would be revered but it all makes sense. Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate are some of life’s finer things
    🙂

    • Yes, I agree Swiss cheese and chocolate are tops, although I also remain loyal to America’s dairyland favorites—Wisconsin colby and cheese curds!

  5. Dear Pat:
    How interesting to celebrate the cows. They are a complete meal from milk to steak. Glad you are able to return to school under medical attention. Does your school have STYPE? what a nice thing to offer the students an opportunity to chat with me. Just a thought. Well, fall is coming on fast. The really cool mornings and evenings and warn mid days are here Leaves are falling like snow flakes. In the Midwest, frost is on the pumpkins. You take care.
    Joyfully,
    Clarice Boswell

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