If you happen to be in Tyrol in the Austrian autumn, you simply must experience a traditional Almabtrieb or cattle drive. You may call them the belles of the ball or the homecoming queens… The cows of the Tyrolean Alps return to their valley homes in royal fashion after spending the summer in high mountain pastures.
The Almabtrieb is a thanksgiving
“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 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.
A royal welcome
The “homecoming queens” make their grand entrance wearing “crowns” decorated with flowers and pine branches. A colourful disc fits over the forehead and nose of the Austrian cow. Sometimes they display a picture of a saint or sometimes the name of the Alm (mountain pasture) where the animal comes from. Others just feature a Tyrolean saying or pretty embroidery.
Brightly embroidered collars hold giant bells around their necks. The bells and headdresses can weigh up to 20kg.
Harvest or parish festivals
The Almabtrieb or cattle drive often coincides with the autumn harvest festival in September and October. 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 is 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 in 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, wood carvers, 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 really 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.
Fast facts about an Almabtrieb
- 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 practiced 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 are driven into the mountains in summer is that there aren’t enough grazing areas in the valleys. The farmers need the hay for winter. The grass on the mountain pastures is also much healthier, resulting in better quality milk.
- Some of the popular cattle drives in Tyrol are the ones in Mayrhofen, Kufstein, Kirchberg in Tirol, Pertisau, Hopfgarten, and, of course, Reith im Alpbachtal. Read more about them here.
- 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.
- Most cattle drives in Austria happen on a Saturday or Sunday. You will find the most detailed list, with dates and places, here. A lot of the text is in German but you should be able to understand the place names and dates.
Tips for attending the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal
- Try to come early to easily find parking and a good spot from where to watch the cows enter the town. Various fields are turned into parking areas with parking attendants showing you where to park.
- Why not make a few days of your visit to Reith im Alpbachtal by staying in the valley? Oberhaslachhof has great apartments where you can cater for yourself or dine in town. Or check out the lovely Haus Sonnwend in Alpbach just up the road.
- Use the Alpbachtal as a base to go sightseeing in Innsbruck, the capital of Tyrol.
- Go on one of the most beautiful autumn hikes in Tyrol the day before or after the Almabtrieb. The Tiefenbachklamm is also in the Alpbachtal Seenland tourism region but on the other side of the Inn Valley near Kramsach.
- Reith im Alpbachtal is also easily reached by train and bus. Simply take the train to Jenbach or Wörgl and the bus from there. You will find all the details with timetables here. What’s more is that travel on the buses is free if stay in a hotel or apartment that’s registered with the local tourism organisation.
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