Illustration Graham Roumieu
On a bright day in early autumn, a notably well-dressed herd of cows wends its way through the mountainous Austrian village of Kitzbühel. After a long summer spent grazing fresh grass in the high-altitude meadows, where everything from precarious cliffside trails to lightning strikes poses real risk to hoof and limb, the cows come home to lower fields. It’s a rare season when every last one somehow survives, and on those occasions the villagers hold a raucous, spangled cow parade called the Almabtrieb. “The cow train is a celebration and a thank-you to God,” says farmer Nik Filzer. “We haven’t had one for twenty years.”
The parade begins at dawn, after the hair-raising overnight descent. At a staging area outside town, farmers dress their brown-and-white heifers in century-old bells and heirloom leather headpieces bearing images of saints or German sayings. Finally, each ruminant is wreathed in colorful paper flowers.
At noon the slow stampede arrives in town. Surrounded by beer-quaffing crowds, the cows—some 200 head— make their way slowly through quaint squares, past stately churches and designer boutiques gearing up for ski season. The clanging of the bells is deafening, but the crowds greet the parade with even louder cheers, perhaps in anticipation of the sweet milk, chocolate and savory cheese they’ll sample this winter. As for the bovine guests of honor, they seem mostly indifferent despite their finery. —RICH CARRIERO