It’s the “Désalpes” in Switzerland: the cows are coming home from the Swiss Alps!

Events, Things to Do, Travel Tips, What's New — By Sonja Holverson on September 28, 2010 at 8:40 am

If you missed the traditional festivities of the cows ascending the Swiss Alps for summer pastures in June, perhaps you can watch them come back down for the winter now for the next couple weeks. DESALPES literally means to de-Alp or “leave the Alps” or “from the Alps”. The cows (adorned with flowers) will be followed on their cowbell-ringing journey back to the barn by fanfare, Swiss folkloric costumes, dancing and lots of traditional Swiss food and wine served everywhere in every Swiss village with Alphorns playing. Did I mention the Swiss wine and food? Well, it’s a celebration of another season to begin. And there is no fee to participate in this annual bovine parade and party as the cows come home.

It’s best to know in which villages the cows will be parading though. Firstly, so that you know where to go to have a fabulous day and secondly to avoid traffic congestion. Once the cows are down off the high Alps, they’re on the paved road home along with the cars (except that the cows have priority). I was caught in it once near Grindelwald innocently but ended up having the time of my life. There were a lot of cows to let pass before I could drive on but then I followed them to the next village where I stopped for an unscheduled visit and had a toast with the locals with some of that excellent Swiss wine! For a fairly comprehensive list of DESALPES celebrations consult My Switzerland tourism which also has recommendations for participation in the area in which you may be.

Taking over the streets of Semsales: image courtesy of the commune of Semsales

My pals and I are heading for the “Désalpe de Semsales” next Saturday in the Les Paccots region in the Canton of Fribourg above Vevey (which is near Montreux on Lake Geneva). More than 300 head of cattle will be descending from the Swiss Alps nearby then passing through the village Semales before ending up in the barn. But even after the cows are settled in, the fun continues (we’re so happy to have them back, you know). There will be a folkloric marketplace with local agricultural products and regional artisanal creations along with all types of Swiss music from Oompah to Alphorns. And of course, for the kids there will be the old-fashioned and delightful Carrousel (which parents love to ride also). Many well-marked not-too-difficult-hiking trails in the area are all around and you might have a little walk in the afternoon …or not. Yes, there’s that Swiss folkloric music and that tasty Swiss wine still there to entertain you.

A group playing Alphorns is an essential part of the “Désalpes” : image courtesy of desalpe-semsales.ch

The villagers « Les Semsalois” at Semsales go all out and have one of the best, most authentic  “Désalpes” celebrations in the region and are prepared to welcome everyone coming from all over. But wherever you are in Switzerland you will find a village celebrating this annual tradition. My Switzerland tourism will guide you to the nearest “Désalp” festival (“Alpabzug” in German). It’s the time of Autumn when the farmers, crafts people, villagers, urban dwellers, students and visitors from Switzerland and elsewhere share together a time that honors their Swiss roots, their traditions, the mountains and the cattle ranchers (Swiss Cowboys and girls called “des armaillis”). No, they do not wear the same hats as in the US as cattle ranchers.

“Les Semsalois” preparing the cuisine for the day: image courtesy of desalpe-semsales.ch

Semales, a quite large and delightful village dating back prior to the Middle Ages. It’s at an altitude 2’085 ft. surrounded by forests and pastures and has a population of about 1’100 lovely people.

We will take a direct Swiss Rail train from Lausanne to Palézieux (with a beautiful view of Lake Geneva and the French and Swiss Alps while going uphill) and change to a regional train that stops about every 2 minutes and goes through the main town of Châtel-St-Denis (which has the best village fondue ever !) The entire trip is about 45 – 55 minutes depending on the connection in Palézieux.

Preparing the “Désalpes” folkloric market place: image courtesy of desalpe-semsales.ch

Come early as the village will be welcoming visitors with the local regional breakfast between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM. There will be cuchaule, a Swiss bread from Fribourg (prepared with superfine flour, butter, Swiss milk, lightly sweetened with saffron. Usually they create a checkered pattern on the top and then glaze the loaves with egg. You spread Bénichon mustard on it along with butter. If it’s served later in the day, it is a accompanied with Swiss wine (usually white), but after all, this is breakfast so there will coffee and other breakfast beverages.

The Swiss Folkloric market begins at 7:30 AM with local products brought in by about 30 merchants and other villagers to assist them on this special day. Do a little Christmas or souvenir shopping as well as try some local food products. The bovine celebrities of the day will pass through the village between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM depending on the weather in the high pastures which could slow them down a bit. There are 14 herds of cattle to arrive back which will pass through Semales.

Before the cows leave the high pastures, the “armaillis” which are very proud of their “troupeau” (herd) get up very early in order to be on time and have to clean and brush their animals and dress them in flowers attached to pine branches and polish their cowbells. In addition, the “armaillis” must close down the chalet for the winter. No simple task.

A last snack before the journey: image courtesy of desalpe-semsales.ch

Intuitively, even the cows know it’s that special “Déalpes” day when they will leave the pastures. There is a certain excitement amongst the herds as they are being dressed for the parade.

After that magic time when the cattle are parading through the village, the work is not yet finished for the “cowboys”. They must get the herd settled into their winter quarters, milk the cows, and prepare the facilities for the winter. It’s only then that they are free to join the festivities, have some of that good Swiss wine and do a little dancing. Perhaps they may even win a prize for their herd from the villagers.

This is a great moment for everyone who has shared this day of conviviality and respect for this well preserved colorful Swiss tradition.

The “armaillis” lead their beloved herds home: image courtesy of myswitzerland.com

Top right photo “Descending the Alps in Style”: image courtesy of desalpe-semsales.ch

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Tags: Alphorns, cows, DESALPES, festivities, folkloric, Fribourg, Grindelwald, Montreux, Semsales, Switzerland, Vevey, villagers, “Châtel-St-Denis”, “Lake Geneva”, “Les Paccots”, “Swiss Alps”, “Swiss Rail”, “Swiss Tradition”, “Swiss wine“

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