When summer reaches the Alps of southwestern Austria’s Tirol Province, yodeling farmers gather in the dawn light to urge drowsy cows into milling herds. Pajama-clad villagers guard their driveways with brooms and sticks, tapping wayward cattle back on course.
Each year across these mountains, thousands of meadow farms welcome more than 100,000 cattle for seasonal grazing. From the pastures, the cows produce a daily flow of milk churned into butter, cultured into yogurt, and curdled into wheels of alpine cheese.
But it’s the herds’ magnificent return, four months later, that draws tourists from around the world to participate in a festive homecoming tradition.
When the cows come home
Attracting farmers, dairymen, residents, and visitors, the centuries-old almabtriebs (cattle processions) of Tirol and neighboring provinces honor the cows’ successful summer production with parades, feasts, and dancing.
Decked out in vibrant garlands, cheerfully ringing cowbells, and floral headdresses with majestic, mountain-like peaks, the herds meander down from the mountains to be greeted in town with folk music and plattler, a thigh-slapping jig performed by lederhosen-wearing dancers. An endless cascade of cold beer and homemade fruity schnapps keeps spirits abuzz. Crowds of locals and visitors roam farmers’ markets stocked with treats made from the summer’s milk.
Once the celebrations wane, cows nestle back into foothill farms, and villagers return to the humdrum of daily life. But the region’s unique cuisine offers a taste of summer year-round.
Kasspatzln, or “little cheese sparrows,” is a hearty heap of egg noodles tossed with melted alpine cheese and butter and topped with a sprinkling of fried onion. Schlutzkrapfen, half-moon pasta pockets akin to ravioli or pierogi, are generously filled with creamy potato and served with a glossy coat of browned butter and parsley. To satisfy your sweet tooth, look for kaiserschmarren, a pancake baked in butter then torn into fluffy pieces and finished with an oozing spoonful of stewed plums.
After a stein of beer or two, nibble on an order of Tiroler marend: a sampling of cured and smoked meats, mountain cheese, and freshly baked breads, this customary farmer’s snack is a highlight of the province’s farm-to-table fare. The charcuteries are served on a wooden board and often embellished with lard, cold cuts of roast pork, and horseradish.
Cheile Bicazului-Hăşmaş National Park, Romania
How to visit
Agritourism is on the rise in the Alps and around the world—and participating in an almabtrieb is a great way to get your feet wet (or muddy). From Salzburg or Munich, take the train or rent a car to the nearest participating village or farm. Tirol, about an hour and a half from Salzburg by car or an hour by train, is one of the more popular destinations—try the villages of Pertisau, Steeg, or Tannheim. For a comprehensive list, go to Visit Tyrol. Festivities typically run from September to October, depending on the weather.
To join a cattle drive, pack proper hiking gear and scoop up a herding stick upon arrival (any old tree branch will do). Or, if shepherding isn’t your thing, feel free to amble down the mountain alongside the herd. Otherwise, wait in the valley below to partake in the festival.
Stay at historic Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, located at the base of the Going am Wilden Kaiser mountains. The hotel’s 20-plus cows are active participants in the guest experience, whether during an almabtrieb or as onlookers during a meal in the “cowshed room” restaurant. Guided hikes up to the Stangl Alm (Stanglwirt’s mountain farm hut) are available during the summer, where cowbells summon guests to lunch after a visit with the cheesemaker.
For a more pastoral berth, seek out one of many mountain huts dotting the region. Accommodations range from centuries-old farmhouses to more upgraded properties with luxury amenities.
- Nat Geo Expeditions