Until the cows come home in Vorarlberg

Discover a little piece of heaven on earth in a trio of valleys.
By Julian Mattocks
Photographs Courtesy Julian Mattocks

In Austria’s remote Kleinwalsertal valley, the crowds lining the streets of Riezlern have been patiently waiting all morning. Nobody knows exactly when the annual homecoming procession will arrive, but it has to be soon. Relieved that my travelling companions and I have made it in the nick of time after an exhilarating and nail-biting two-hour drive, I join the onlookers and peer out at the Großer Widderstein in the distance. Starting from a high pasture beyond this mountain, the parade will cover 10 km (6 miles) from an altitude of 4,619 feet down through the valley’s three main villages. I pick my roadside spot and wait nervously for the grand arrival. Beside me, Britta Maier from the Kleinwalsertal Tourist Board offers me a friendly final reminder: “If the first one is wearing a crown, that means they’ve all made it safely back into the valley.”

A faint, distant clanging of bells draws a ripple of excited murmurs from all bystanders as a sea of cattle suddenly emerges around a corner. At the front of the herd is a festively decorated lead cow attached to a rope held by the Oberhirti (head shepherd). His wife walks beside him and his little girl skips merrily between them. Behind them, the herd pace gradually quickens until everything explodes into life. Spurred on by stick-wielding farmers on their outside, the cattle start to stampede down the road amongst a haze of bovine steam and dust, while helpers jump out of line intermittently to receive a well-deserved schnapps or kiss a loved one. I watch the cows pass by in a blur: clicking my camera furiously as they run past, one by one. After just 90 seconds, it’s all over but I don’t feel short-changed at all. My first experience of an Alpine cattle drive—a centuries-old tradition known as an Alpabtrieb in Austria’s westernmost state of Vorarlberg—has turned out to be far more invigorating than I could have imagined.

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