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.
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.
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.