CHARMEY, SWITZERLAND, October 4, 2016 – Each year when the sky slowly yields from the bright blue of summer to a foreboding winter gray in Switzerland, an annual ritual known as “Alpine transhumance” takes place throughout the Alps. The Swiss simply call it the “procession of the cows.”
Though the seasonal migration from the high pastures of summer to the valleys in winter has remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages in the Alpine regions of Europe, Alpine transhumance plays a significant role in the life and economy of rural mountain regions.
The major difference today however, is that the Swiss, with their typical ingenuity, have turned it into a festival.
In the tiny village of Charmey (population approximately 8,000) in the Fribourg region of Switzerland, the party that began 37-years ago, has grown into a day long celebration of chocolate and cheese on the hoof.
Village streets begin to fill with people about ten in the morning as onlookers eagerly await the first of a dozen families to parade their livestock through the main street of town.
Unlike their masters, Swiss cows do not maintain the same high level of punctuality, which therefore means a scheduled 10:30 arrival will likely take place sometime within the next half hour.
No matter. There are food stalls along side streets, markets and even a short parade consisting of traditional alphorns carried by local men garbed in traditional dress, followed by the Society of Bearded Gentlemen proudly displaying their most recent growth.
In another square there is yodeling and folk dancing to pass the time until far down the street behind a curve in the road, the first clanking of the cowbells can be heard, signaling that the main attraction is on its way.
Each cowbell has a different sound so that farmers can identify a particular animal even when he cannot see it.
After four decades of celebrating, the cows often wear their finest Sunday clothes as they parade through the streets just to put everyone in a good “mooed.” This is their day and they know it.
Travelers wishing to experience the colorful pageant of the procession of the cows should make plans in advance due to the limited frequency of the festivals.
That said, there are plenty of other things in Fribourg to keep a visitor occupied at any time of year. The town, which is bilingual with German and French being the two languages, nestles atop a small hill above the valley of the River Sarine.
Protected on three sides by high cliffs, Fribourg features some majestic views that can be easily accessed by the local Petite Train which operates regularly from in front of the Tourist Office.
Fribourg’s name is derived from the German words frei (free) and burg (fort) dating to the year 1157 during a time when Switzerland was beginning to form into the cantons, or states, that exist today.
Charmey, which was a municipality in the Gruyeres district until 1914, was for many years the primary production center for Gruyere AOP cheese. At that time the cheese was produced largely in the mountains.
One question often asked about Gruyeres is whether to spell it with or without the letter “S” at the end. The answer is simple; the town gets the “S” and the cheese doesn’t.
When the cows are not marching, the Gruyere baths in Charmey are a popular attraction for travelers wishing to “take the waters.” There are two large swimming pools, one indoors, the other outside, plus whirlpools, massage nozzles and Oriental steam baths.
Keep in mind that a visit to Charmey for the procession of the cows may be far less daring than attempting to “run with the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain but it is just as colorful and a thousand times safer.
It’s a traditional ritual that makes for good dinner conversation when your journey to Switzerland has come to an end.
You see, one thing you quickly learn by attending the procession of cows in Charmey is that when it comes to festivals, the Swiss will party until “the cows come home.”
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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