Today I’m here to tell you about what may very well be the coolest festival in Austria: the Almabtrieb!
You may not have heard the name before, but if you’ve ever come across photos of cows with bells around their necks and flowers on their heads, you’ve probably had a glimpse of the Almabtrieb. This is basically a massive welcome home party…for cows!
Yes, you read that right; a party for cattle. I know this probably sounds a little bit confusing, so let’s get to the history of this unusual festival.
What is the Almabtrieb?
During the summer months, cows are lead up to the Alps by their farmers, where they’ll spend a few months grazing the pastures at a higher elevation. Then, when autumn rolls around and the temperatures begin to drop, the cows make their descent from the mountains and return to their farms for the winter. This practice is called ‘transhumance’, and it’s a type of Alpine nomadism that dates back thousands of years.
The festival itself is a celebration of a good summer season and a safe return home, and these days it’s also a good party that draws tourists from far and wide!
What to expect from the Almabtrieb?
My visit to Tyrol just so happened to coincide with the start of autumn and that meant there were cow parades happening all over the region. Since I was staying in Reith im Alpbachtal, I attended the parade happening in town, but this is just one of many celebrations.
This peaceful little town completely transformed overnight and the streets filled with thousands of visitors; this is the biggest event of the year, so everyone came out to celebrate!
Live music could be heard across the town and the mood was festive. There were Tyrolean bands playing traditional tunes in the main bandstand, all donning their very best lederhosen and feathered hats. As the day progressed the streets turned into a makeshift dance floor with people singing, dancing, and for those who had imbibed too much, some swaying.
There were also lots of stands serving up traditional Tyrolean dishes. There was Hendl (roasted chicken), Prügeltorte (lemon zest cake cooked on a rolling pin), Kasspatzen (noodles with lots of melted cheese) and so much more! Honestly, this was some of the best Austrian food we’ve tried! And it wouldn’t be a proper celebration without a few pints of Bier, so as you can imagine, there was plenty of that flowing.
But it wasn’t all food at the Almabtrieb; there was also a massive craft market set up that ran the length of the two main streets. There were all kinds of locally handcrafted souvenirs like Tyrolean felt hats, knit sweaters, hand-painted glass ornaments, ceramic cow figurines, bottles of schnapps, and just about anything you could imagine.
Aside from the craft market, there were also craft demonstrations happening across the town. We watched a man demonstrate the art of shingle making (something that you still see in use in Tyrolean architecture), a woodcarver meticulously sculpting a pattern onto what would become a key holder, and a group of three ladies turning wool into yarn. I also appreciated that for many of these demonstrations, it was the older generation showcasing their craft to the younger generation.
And then, of course, there was the main event: THE COW PARADE!
Throughout the afternoon, the cows paraded through town in different groups, so it’s not one of those events where you blink and you miss it.
After watching three different groups parade down the main street, we walked over to two of the farms to see the cows up close in their beautiful headdresses. (Don’t worry about needing an exact address to find these farms; if you walk along the pond, you’ll see the cows all dressed up in the fields – you really can’t miss them!)
The farmers had opened up their fields so that everyone could admire the cows; some were grazing, others were napping, but for the most part, they all seemed unfazed by the extra attention.
As for the headdresses, they were all quite varied; this is because they are made by the farmer and his family, so each farm has its own style. The headdresses were mostly leather, decorated with pine and paper flowers that stuck out like a giant plume, but I also spotted a few more ornate ones that looked like crowns.
Aside from their headdresses, the cows also wore big bells. The purpose of these is to help the farmer hear his cattle should they wander off in the Alps. These bells usually hang from a leather necklace and some are quite elaborate. I saw an engraved one that said “Gott schütze uns”, which means “God protect us”.
Where can you see the Almabtrieb?
Like I mentioned, I personally watched the Almabtrieb in the town of Reith im Alpbachtal in Tyrol, Austria, however, the return of the cattle is a celebration that also takes place in Switzerland and Germany.
Tips for attending the Almabtrieb:
- When it comes to attending the Almabtrieb, you have 3 options: you can stay in town, take a shuttle into town, or drive and leave your car at the entrance of the town. (They turn the fields into a massive parking lot and it’s walking distance to the festivities.)
- If you decided to stay in town, it’s a good idea to book your accommodations well in advance. For many of the towns, this is the biggest event of the year and accommodations can fill up fast! You can view the going rate for accommodations in Reith im Alpbachtal here.
- Locals dress up for this event and tourists are also welcome to join in the fun. Men will typically wear lederhosen, while the girls wear dirndls. (If you’re going to be travelling around Germany for Oktoberfest shortly after, you can wear the same outfit!)
- Admission to the festival is € 5,00 per person, but children under 12 have free admission.
- Lastly, make sure your camera batteries are fully charged – there will be so many photo ops!