When the cows come home

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on January 23, 2018

Herd instincts: The Swiss cow bell is an important part of la Désalpe festivities. Photo: Debashree Majumdar

One of the many cows at the colourful parade. Photo: Debashree Majumdar

Their descent from the Alpine woods for the winters calls for celebration in Switzerland

As we boarded the little red train from Nyon, a lakeside town with Roman origins, and headed to the popular hiking town of Saint-Cergue, I felt a little curious about the crowd waiting behind. A queue in Switzerland is not a common sight, much less a train packed with people of various nationalities speaking English. With the country’s diverse lingual traditions — its four official languages are German, French, Italian and Romansch — depending on which part of the nation you inhabit, the Queen’s language isn’t in favour among locals. Well, unless your co-passenger is an English-speaking, French-wary, recently-relocated expat.

After a 40-minute journey carrying a bunch of chattering expats and a handful of annoyed locals through the picturesque Swiss countryside, the train drew into the manicured town of Saint-Cergue with its neatly-lined streets of quaint houses bursting with red geraniums at the balconies.

The familiar sound of loud clanging of bells, reminiscent of an evening prayer in one of India’s many temples, almost made me want to rush back home. As S and I made our way to the town’s centre, the jangling of bells, now growing louder, led us to our first glimpse of its source. Herds of massive cows, in colours of brown, black and white, some spotted, some not, their heads drooping from the weight of the giant decorated bells on collars, were trundling down the lush green slopes, spilling onto the town’s main street, following a parade of women, men and children.

Welcome to la Désalpe (as commonly known in French-speaking Switzerland) or an Alpabfahrt (in German-speaking regions), or strangely ‘transhumance’ in English, the annual autumn festivities that mark the descent of cattle from the green meadows before winter’s cruel frost sets in. As a tradition, rooted deeply in the Alpine nation’s agricultural calendar, Désalpe is observed across the country, in varying avatars, over the last three weekends of September.

Originally a small community event, the ceremony has evolved into a minor tourist draw over the last few years, attended by a diverse set of people looking for excuses to fill their weekends.

Switzerland is home to nearly 1.6 million cows, but only a fraction of them graze in the luxury of pastures nestled in the cool reaches of Alpine woods. Come autumn, they all return to the warmth of their sheds in the valleys. And the Swiss love their bovine beasts enough to make a grand occasion of it by throwing a jolly party that includes live folk music, communal dancing, brass bands, alphorn choir and a thriving food and souvenir market.

Despite the gathering chill in the air, the main square in Saint-Cergue was alive with its 2,000-odd inhabitants and a handful of tourists. While children milled about the square, tourists collected around a folk dance performance in progress. Amateurs — women dressed in traditional blue-and-white tracht and men in white shirts, red-and-black jackets — danced to a live brass band. Accordions, trumpets and cellos were played, and the performers cheered along with loud clapping.

On the pavements, colourful cashmere, decorative cow bells, cuckoo clocks, chocolates and accessories jostled for space in makeshift tents; juicy sausages were grilled to perfection and the flavour of Emmental cheese filled the air, as cafes dished out Désalpe-special menus comprising ham-on-the-bone, cabbage, potato salad, sausages and meringues with cream. And there was wine and beer to wash it all down with. Then came the stars of the show. First, Swiss flags were waved to much yodelling, followed by a procession of young girls and boys dressed in edelweiss-embroidered pale-blue frocks and shirts.

Next up was the company of marching men ringing bells — weighing almost seven kilos each — to rhythmic beats, with the cows following, bedecked in brilliant floral headdresses, some walking obediently, some straying among onlookers, and some trying rather hard to keep up with the loud clanging. Donkeys, goats and furry St Bernards were the last to join the party accompanied by children of diminishing sizes.

Alphorns were sounded out, and after the herdsmen had paraded their cattle around town, people proceeded to spend the rest of the day amidst folk music and lazy abandon. We picked our way through the cowpat that now carpeted the town’s streets and made for the marked trail of the Ballade à Béatrix for a hike. By the time we reached the top, swathes of white wispy clouds had wrapped the Alps, rising right across from where we stood, and cast their pale shadow over the glistening expanse of Lake Geneva below. We took in the stunning view and the crisp, fresh air, as the occasional gentle jangling floating up from the valley made for a suitable song.

Travel Log

Getting there : Saint-Cergue is easily accessible by train from major Swiss cities such as Geneva and Lausanne. There are direct trains from Nyon every 30 minutes.

Sightseeing : Famed for its marked hiking trails, Saint-Cergue offers spectacular views of the Jura crests along with the whole Alpine chain stretching as far as Mont Blanc. For guided hiking tours, look up http://www.st-cergue-tourisme.ch/en/summer/hiking

BLink Tip : Located 40 minutes from Saint-Cergue is the medieval town of Nyon. Stop by for a Swiss winetasting do (two reds, two whites and one rosé alongside a plate of cold meats, cheese and nibbles) for CHF 25 per person at the 12th-century Château de Nyon.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Geneva

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Published on October 23, 2015
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