Swiss villages mark return of cows with yodeling, alphorns, costumes

URNAESCH, Switzerland — First, the sound of cowbells and yodeling.

Then the guests emerge from the green hills: Swiss brown cows with bells as big as their heads, accompanied by little white goats and cowherds in traditional red-and-yellow costumes.

Here in the village of Urnaesch and across much of Switzerland, crisp falls days mean it’s time to welcome the cows that have been grazing in high Alpine pastures as they return to the lowlands to beat the snow.

The ceremonies, known as Alpabzug, Alpabfahrt or the Desalpe, are one of many cultural rites that still mark the seasons in this country of deeply rooted agricultural traditions.

The event has also become a tourist attraction, with the train from Zurich full that morning for the 90-minute trip. “This is such a part of rural Swiss culture, I had to experience it,” said Lorraine Curran-Vu, an American from Massachusetts.

The celebrations happen throughout September and October, but they vary from valley to valley — not surprising given the deep regional distinctions bred by impassable mountains. Switzerland’s 8 million residents also have four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) and innumerable dialects.

But the region where Urnaesch is located, Appenzellerland, is particularly fascinating. It is one of Switzerland’s least explored areas, and the pace of change seems to match the inching of glaciers across the Alps — grindingly slow, even by the standards of conservative Switzerland.

Although Swiss women won the right to vote on the federal level in 1971, Appenzell’s two sub-cantons, or localities, were the last in the nation to concede women a vote in 1989 and 1990. One sub-canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, remains the last place in Switzerland where local issues are still decided by open-air voting. Men turn out to vote in the town square wearing swords, while women bake traditional voting-day pastries.

In Urnaesch, the cow-welcoming processions followed a firmly established order. First came a young boy in yellow leather lederhosen, an embroidered red vest and knee-high white socks, then a little girl in a striped frock, tending a flock of tiny white goats, then a herdsman in full traditional garb matching the boy’s, plus a black hat festooned with flowers and elaborate metal-work decorating his suspenders, pipe, or watch-chain.

Then came the cows deemed most perfect in body and milk production, bearing the heavy clanging bells on colorful, intricately worked leather collars.

Finally, the yodelers: four farmers walking side by side in red and black outfits. Their singing kept the animals together and moving down the mountain. The rest of the herd followed, capped by a farmer leading the bull and a cart with carved wooden moulds and implements used in butter- and cheese-making.

The hike from the limestone flanks of the craggy Santis mountain took most of the day. Villagers greeted the herders with glasses of fresh-pressed apple juice, wine or beer.

An alphorn trio from Basel played their 11-foot-long instruments as the village waited for each of the nine herds to descend. The alphorn’s loud, mellow call can be heard for miles. The effect of three of them harmonizing in Urnaesch’s cozy, cobblestoned village square could be felt as much as heard.

The region is no longer dependent on cattle for survival, and modern comforts like indoor heating have softened the impact of weather. But the rituals that have set the rhythms of life for centuries here remain important markers of identity to many Appenzellers, said Erika Kist, of the Museum for Appenzeller Traditions. The museum, in a 400-year-old house, offers a wealth of information and careful displays of traditional life, arts and crafts.

In addition to the descent of cows at the end of summer, Appenzellerland hosts cattle shows in the fall, celebration of the herds’ ascent to the high pastures in spring, and ancient mid-winter rites in which men dress up in fearsome costumes and carouse in the pre-dawn hours to scare away evil spirits.

The herders’ costumes are not just worn to entertain tourists. The costly outfits are also used in special occasions like weddings, church services or other folk celebrations, Kist said.

Many of the villagers waiting for the cowherds to arrive also wore the single hoop earring on the right side that’s part of traditional menswear in the region, along with Edelweiss, light blue or grey shirts patterned with the tiny Alpine flowers.

Once the cows were through, piglet races commenced and food stands sold beer, fruit cordials, dried or cured meats, and sausages sizzling on grills.

The redolent Appenzeller cheese was everywhere, and the smell of it roasted to melting drew a long line of fans for raclette _ bubbling, crusty cheese scraped onto slices of bread. It’s another tradition that clearly has a long life ahead.

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