The Almabtrieb or homecoming of the cows from the high Alpine pastures where they spend the summer is a celebration of note in Tyrolean villages. The reason? To give thanks for the safe return of the animals and their herders. In this post, you’ll find everything you need to plan a visit to an Almabtrieb in Tyrol.
What Is An Almabtrieb?
If you happen to be in Tyrol in the autumn, you must experience a traditional Almabtrieb or cattle drive. That’s when the cows of the Austrian Alps return to their valley homes after spending the summer in high mountain pastures.
Life on the pastures isn’t just moonlight and roses. Illness, accidents and bad weather can strike at any time. The farmers are so thankful when their herds return unharmed, that they want to give thanks and celebrate the occasion.
Thus a tradition started where the animals are adorned with beautiful headdresses in the form of wreaths and flower arrangements. They fit over the forehead and nose of the cow and sometimes display a picture of a saint or sometimes the name of the Alm where the animal comes from. Others feature a Tyrolean saying or pretty embroidery.
Brightly embroidered collars hold giant bells, polished to a high gloss, around the cows’ necks. The bells and headdresses can weigh up to 20kg.
The dressing of the cows starts at the crack of dawn, because the way home can be long and hard. It’s not uncommon for herds to cover more than 20 km, including a change in altitude of a few hundred metres, in one day.
Over time, colourful customs developed around the return of the livestock and the herdsman. Because there isn’t much time for eating and drinking while driving the animals home, the herdsman would be dying of hunger and thirst upon arrival. That’s why a feast awaits them to this day.
Of course, the fact that everyone makes it down the mountain safely is also reason to celebrate with a shot of schnapps or a beer. And while everyone is in a festive mood, the local musicians take up their instruments to provide a festive backdrop for traditional dances and other merry activities.
The farmers’ wives serve Kiachl, Knödel and other delicacies, some of which are prepared only during this special occasion.
Interesting Almabtrieb Facts
- In Tyrol, around 110,000 heads of cattle, 70,000 sheep, 5,500 goats and 2,000 horses graze on high Alpine pastures during the summer.
- The seasonal migration of livestock between summer and winter pastures is also called transhumance. Transhumance, as practised in the Alps, where the animals move from the valleys to the high mountain pastures, is called vertical transhumance or Alpine transhumance.
- The reason why so many animals get driven into the mountains in summer is that there aren’t enough grazing areas in the valleys. The 2,100 alpine pastures in Tyrol add around 180,000 hectares of grazing land in summer.
- The grass on the mountain pastures is much healthier than the stable feed, resulting in better quality milk. Moreover, without the livestock grazing in the herb-rich alpine pastures, the meadows will become wild and overgrown.
- It’s not always easy for farmers to find mountain pastures for their cows near their homes. One of the farmers we know well from Tulfes has to break his herd up, with one lot spending summer in the Karwendel mountains across the valley.
- The use of alpine meadows for grazing date back to the Neolithic Age. Pollen analysis by researchers from the University of Innsbruck showed that alpine pastures in the Ötztal were grazed more than 6,000 years ago. This is one of the most interesting facts about Austria I’ve come across.
- The Tyrolean alpine landscape of today has essentially been the same since the Middle Ages. This can be seen, for example, in the Rattenberger Salbuch from 1416, which lists all the alpine pastures of the Alpbachtal.
When Is The Almabtrieb?
The Almabtrieb often coincides with the autumn harvest festival in September and October. Most cattle drives accompanied by organised village festivities happen on a Saturday or Sunday. There are more than 40 noteworthy cattle drives in Tyrol alone.
You’ll find a detailed list, with dates and places, here. A lot of the text is in German, but it’s easy to understand the place names and dates.
Best Places For An Almabtrieb
Reith im Alpbachtal
“I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows, and you come home.”
Well, we danced with or rather around the cows at the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal, a town not far from the Inn Valley between Kufstein and Innsbruck. (Although I’m sure that’s not what Groucho Marx had in mind when he spoke the words in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup 😊)
The “homecoming queens” make their grand entrance wearing “crowns” decorated with flowers and pine branches.
In Reith im Alpbachtal a parish festival is held on the same day. The authentic folk festival with a farmers’ and craft market is so popular that it’s now held over two Saturdays to accommodate the thousands of visitors coming from near and far.
The arrival of the cows is hard to miss with the sound of their bells rising above the noisy crowds. Then it looks like the dead sea parting as everyone makes a path for the animals to pass in the street. The dancing mentioned above comes in when one of them has a sudden bowel movement, and there is an unsavoury splatter from the tar road. (They are very well behaved otherwise 😉 )
The town’s marching band and a variety of other bands perform on different stages during the day, while their listeners consume hundreds of litres of beer and merrily sing along as the day progresses. When hunger strikes, there is no shortage of traditional Tyrolean dishes – from Knödelsuppe (dumpling soup) to sausages and Breze (pretzels) and Lebkuchen (spicy cake) cows.
Those who are more interested in culture and tradition than in partying can watch the local artisans practice their craft. There are basket weavers, wool weavers, woodcarvers, and schnapps distillers – with accompanying tasting of the latter!
Watching the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal is an experience not to be missed, especially if it’s your only chance of witnessing an Almabtrieb in Tyrol. It showcases the best Austrian traditions all in one place.
I must admit we were a bit overwhelmed by the masses of people in some areas. However, the town is big enough to find a quiet spot from where to watch the homecoming of the cows.
The individual farmers come from the various side valleys of Mayrhofen, such as Zillergrund, Stilluptal, Tuxertal and also from Ginzling, as well as from Schwendberg. Numerous local farmers will accompany their lovingly decorated cows during the “passage” and the visitors of the festival can be very close.
In the Achensee region, atmospheric festivities accompany the annual Almabtrieb, which is a fixed point in the farmers’ annual calendar. The return to the stables on the local farm is celebrated with music, regional delicacies and splendidly decorated animals. Up to nine Almabtriebe takes places in the region between September and October, with the one from the Gramai Alm to Pertisau being one of the highlights.
Tips For Attending An Almabtrieb
- Take cash. While smaller Almabtriebe are free to watch, bigger ones may charge a fee to help cover costs. Adults pay €5 to enter Reith im Alpbachtal for the cattle drive. Kids and parking are free.
- Try to arrive early to find parking and a good spot from where to watch the cows enter the town. Sometimes fields bordering towns are turned into parking areas with parking attendants showing you where to park.
- If you’re hungry and want to try some of the local delicacies, try to get your food before 12:00 if you don’t want to queue. Most Austrians eat exactly at noon!