One of the many reasons we like living in France is the opportunity to observe and experience unique cultural traditions. In general, these are things we would not have sought out to do if we only had a fixed amount of time on vacation. But now that every weekend feels like a vacation in Europe, we seek out these events. This experience took us to Blonay, Switzerland, for “la désalpe.”
Blonay, Switzerland, is a small town located on Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) with panoramic views of the Swiss Alps and a rolling hillside saturated with vineyards. The area is in the French-speaking region, meaning no break from practicing French for us. We previously traveled to this region in 2019 to enjoy the surrounding towns of Montreux, Lausanne, and Vevey. It was on our 2019 vacation that I experienced the swiss mountain cows for the first time.
In Switzerland, many cows, also known as alpine cows, roam free in the sprawling mountainside to graze on the fresh mountain grass in the summers. Owners place bells on their alpine cows in Switzerland for easy locating. There’s nothing more peaceful than the sound of bells distantly ringing in the mountains. Similar to ocean waves crashing into the shore or gentle rain hitting the roof. It’s a sound I could easily use to fall asleep. But when summer ends, it’s time for the alpine cows to return to the plains for the winter. And this brings us to “la désalpe.”
La désalpe is a traditional festival celebrating the return of the alpine cows. The event is typically in September and October throughout towns in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. The cows have spent almost four months reigning free in the mountains but need to come to safety away from the harsh winter conditions. During the festival, the owners adorn their cows with large bells and flowers. The large bells worn for la désalpe are different than the ones worn throughout the summer. The alpine cow’s summer bells are lightweight and small, whereas the bells worn for the festivals are large and heavy.
The owners wear traditional herding gear and make the trek down the mountains alongside their cows. At the finish, the cows walk through the town and are cheered on by onlookers. And they say happy cows come from California. They must not have met the swiss alpine cows!
I’m not sure how we found out about this festival, but I know it has been on our travel list for a couple of years. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced all of these traditional festivals to cancel their events in 2020. Organizers canceled most of these events in 2021, too. But Jordan was resilient in his search and found the one la désalpe event that would still happen in Blonay, Switzerland.
We left for Switzerland after work on Friday by train and arrived in Blonay late that evening. After booking our train tickets, we realized it would have been faster to drive there. Lesson learned! Our hotel, Magie du Leman, was only a ten-minute walk from the train station. We realized too late that the ten-minute walk (with suitcases) was also a hiking path going straight up the mountain, and the hotel was instead a bed and breakfast on the bottom floor of a couple’s home.
We previously stayed at one bed and breakfast before when in Iceland in 2017, also by accident. But the bed and breakfast in Iceland was one of the best accidents ever and one that created lasting memories. The one in Switzerland happened to be the same. The Magie du Leman translates in English to “the magic of Lake Geneva;” it did not disappoint. High up on the mountain, we had one of the best views around. The evenings were peaceful as we enjoyed a glass of wine among a sky full of stars. The mornings were breathtaking as we could take in the stunning landscape over breakfast on the terrace. And ok, the walk up to it wasn’t bad either.
The la désalpe event started on Saturday, September 25, at 11:00 am. See, I can write timely blog posts! We made our way down to the town to enjoy live music and local food before the alpine cows arrived. It was a warm, summer-like day, and the leaves on the trees were starting to have a slight yellow tint to them. I brought a thick cardigan with me to wear (shout out to Jordan’s mom, Linda, for giving it to me), but I should have packed sunscreen instead.
The cows would be arriving in the city center around 2:00 pm, and we had a couple of hours to pass until then. Local cheeses of the region (made by the very same alpine cows we were celebrating) were for sale, as well as sausages and beer. To get into the small festival grounds, we had to verify our vaccination status with the event staff. We found an empty spot at a picnic table and hung out there until it was time for the parade. During this time, men and women in traditional swiss garments walked around the area in an organized fashion while ringing giant cowbells.
A little while later, they announced the cows would be arriving soon. We finished our sausages and walked towards the road to secure our spot to see the cows. The sidewalks were roped off against the road, but many people seemed to disregard the barriers. Even as the road was still open to cars, people would block the roundabout exits without letting cars through. The people-watching at this event was top-notch.
Three men with alpine horns stood in the roundabout and prepared to play a traditional tune as we got positioned. They walked down the parade route and continued to play off and on until the cows arrived. Before the cows reached the town, the event staff closed off the roads and created makeshift barriers with tape. We moved closer to have a front-row view of the alpine cows parading through town.
The first cows to arrive had the most prominent flower crowns out of bright orange and blue flowers. Did their peers nominate them as the alpine cow queens? The owners walked near their cows adorned with flower crowns and giant bells, but they didn’t need any herding. It appeared as the cows knew where they were going and seemed to love the hearty cheers of the crowd around them. With Blonay one of the smaller towns to host a la désalpe festival, only a handful of families paraded with their herds.
The parade ended in a large field where the owners would remove the cow’s bells and flower crowns. Now, this is where the real entertainment began! These alpine cows were not interested in losing their accessories. The cows would run away as their owners tried to remove the bells from their necks. They would squirm their way into the center of the group, untouchable by their owner.
All the squirming would force the cows to push forward, at one point breaking through a barrier and into another field. We watched for over thirty minutes as the cows worked together and against their owners. Seeing how difficult it was to get the bells and flower crowns off, I wonder how long it took the owners to get them on the cows!
To round out our alpine cow celebration, we could not leave the region without trying local cheese. There was a cheese vending machine where we could buy local cheese, but we thought it was best we experience it in a restaurant. Jordan found a restaurant in Blonay that featured a cheese fondue using the local cheeses. We’ve enjoyed fondue from different areas of Switzerland, but the fondue made from cheese in Blonay was one of my favorites. It was smooth and creamy but not too rich. And best of all, it didn’t feel like we needed a wheelbarrow to get us home. We used a taxi instead; it was raining heavily, and there was no way we were walking back up the hill after dinner.
Enjoy some more photos and a couple of videos of the la désalpe festival in Blonay, Switzerland below.