Almabtrieb is a transhumance celebration in the Alps between man, beast, and mountain. Discover why this cattle drive tradition is a must-experience. Trust us, you will come away with enriching memories that linger long after the last clanging cowbell.
There’s a certain romance attached to old-world traditions; they carry a potent brew of history, culture, and nostalgia that holds us spellbound. But beyond their enchanting allure, they also provide a window into how deeply a community cherishes its past. One such alpine tradition steeped in respect for the land and its yield is the annual spectacle of Almabtrieb, or transhumance as it is also known.
Almabtrieb is a rural tradition tracing back over a thousand years. Every fall, as the summer months wane and the lush green pastures begin burning with autumnal gold, farmers in the Alps gather their livestock from lofty mountain pastures and lead them back down to the valleys. In fact, the word “Almabtrieb” literally means “drive from the mountain pasture”. This epic exodus of cows, goats, and sheep from mountain-rimmed meadowlands ensures the herds enjoy the best grasses throughout the year, which in turn enriches the quality of the dairy, meat, and wool products they produce. In the spring, when the high meadows burst into a riot of wildflowers, the herds trod the mountain slopes once again to feast on the fresh greenery.
Accompanying the homecoming each fall is an immense celebration that salutes the safe return of the livestock after a successful grazing season. As we found out last year, the Almabtrieb festivities are a hoof-stomping good time and offer you a chance to experience firsthand the unique customs, music, traditional costumes, and delectable gastronomy of South Tyrol.
Experiencing Almabtrieb in Lajen
No matter where you experience Almabtrieb in South Tyrol it is a sight (and sound) to behold. However, the Almabtrieb festival in the mountain-perched village of Lajen (Laion), the gateway to Val Gardena, is uniquely captivating. As the cradle of South Tyrol’s most festive harvest tradition, Törggelen, we could not think of a better place to witness the age-old ritual of transhumance.
Surrounded by rolling meadows, ancient forests, and the ragged crowns of the Dolomites, Lajen’s crooked streets hum with history. Old stone homes and timeworn Tyrolean barns mingle together in the village — giving you a sense of rootedness. Their faded facades capture the imagination — telling tales of families, farmers, and festivities that have filled the alpine air for generations.
During its annual Almabtrieb celebration, Lajen’s sleepy village square comes alive with a traditional folk festival. Locals, many bedecked in classic Lederhosen, Dirndls, and fanciful feathered hats, along with festival-goers from near and afar, gather to enjoy music, hearty South Tyrolean fare, and ample amounts of wine and beer. From every corner of the square, you can’t help but be swept up by the infectious community spirit of South Tyrol.
In the midst of the Almabtrieb revelry, there’s an old-school act that never fails to captivate an audience: the Schuaplattler dances. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill waltzes; no, these are spirited stomps and slaps, where feet and hands pound in a rowdy rhythm. It’s a raucous spectacle that bridges the past with the present. And Lajen’s Schuaplattler group performs it so well, you wish for a moment to join them and stomp your own place into festival history.
The next custom to snap up your attention is the sharp reports of the Goaslschnöller (whip crackers). Originating from the days when South Tyrolean herdsmen utilized the whip’s piercing crack to guide cattle between pastures, these performers keep the Goaslschnöllen tradition alive by showcasing their skills in the village square. Watching them produce each fiery crack is mesmerizing. It’s immediately clear that masterful coordination and precision are required to avoid injury. The explosive sound comes from a ribbon of nylon or silk at the tip of the whip, which reaches supersonic speed.
The Almabtrieb Parade – Cows Lead the Way
By the time mid-afternoon rolls around, the day’s festivities reach their peak with a grand Almabtrieb parade that runs through the heart of Lajen. Spectators hug both sides of the parade route from one end to the other.
Soon, the resonant clanging of bells ricochets off the cobblestones of Lajen. A procession of cows, led by a herdsman wearing the traditional blue farmer’s apron of South Tyrol, slowly marches between throngs of locals and tourists to unseen stables beyond the village.
The first thing you notice about the cows is their decorative headdress. Before the Almabtrieb parade, they are treated to a grand makeover — adorned with intricately crafted wreaths known as “kranz”. These are typically made of flowers, ribbons, and evergreen boughs.
The embellishments aren’t merely for pleasing the eyes; they’re symbols of thanks and blessings. In some valleys, the kranz may even showcase a cross or a saint to plead for divine protection. Often, the more resplendent the decoration, the more profound the gratitude towards nature’s generosity over the summer months.
Grazing at high altitudes is not without its risks, and not every cow emerges unscathed. But feasting on the alm can prove rewarding beyond the fresh mountain hay. The most fortunate and productive cow of the season, the “Kranzkuh”, earns the parade’s pole position and flaunts the grandest headdress. Ironically, she’s also burdened with the heaviest cowbell — a bovine badge of honor that might feel more like a penalty from her perspective. Ah, such is life in the Alps.
Interestingly, not every cow is crowned. Others simply sport finely embroidered leather belts with polished bells of various styles, sizes, and decor around their massive necks. In the past, these decorative bells were meant to ward off evil spirits as the cows descended the mountain pastures.
After the cows have received their praise, the Almabtrieb parade rolls on with a host of other farmyard celebrities. The next decorated beasts we saw were mountain goats. Unlike the cows, this horny herd seemed in a hurry. They bolted by us as if their next destination was a mountain tavern instead of a barn.
After the goats, a procession of majestic horses and ponies took the stage. Guided by reins or ridden by South Tyroleans ranging from the young to the young-at-heart, they paraded by, many pulling wagons laden with mountain-born goodness — from hay bales to youngsters gleefully tossing candy to the crowd.
Much More than a Cattle Drive
Soon, you discover Almabtrieb isn’t all about herding. After the parade of livestock, a local marching band hits the cobblestones, their brass instruments gleaming under the alpine sun. The melodies of classic South Tyrolean tunes serenade the square, surely tugging at the hearts of some.
Then, a festive caravan of residents, donning their traditional best, marches through Lajen. As you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowd, it becomes evident that this isn’t just a parade; it’s a party. The man next to us waved down a parader pouring shots of Schnapps and with a sunny grin, swiftly knocked back a pair.
This jolly spectacle was followed by a wagon of “Loidner Drescher”, Lajen hay threshers who rhythmically pounded a bed of hay with vintage flails, a practice once used to separate the grain. The sound of the flails striking the hay created a rustic symphony, a powerful thud that can awaken your inner farmer. The sight was both a nod to tradition and a reminder of the relentless spirit of South Tyroleans who shaped the land.
Amid the dancing notes of an accordion, Lajen’s Schuhplattler group reappeared with a tractor dragging a freshly cut log. They eyed each other angrily from both sides of the log and fired off what we can only assume were insults that would make a nun blush. We were hopeful the playful rancor would erupt into a foot-stomping dance in front of us but sadly it did not spark a tussle until further down the parade route.
Rolling up after Schuahplattler group was the Goaslschnöller, Lajen’s whip crackers. Their float, while less about mock confrontation, was rich in another South Tyrolean tradition: camaraderie.
Decorated with a merry crew of men and women, the float carried a long wooden table. Upon it were steins filled to the brim with beer and a glorious platter of Kaminwurze, speck, cheese, and Schüttelbrot. As the float meandered along, the riders belted toasts between sips and shared the spread with the crowd.
We gladly sampled the offering but before we could nibble it all down, wood shavings rained around on us. Another wagon pulled up, this one festooned with pine branches and hosting boisterous lumberjacks who playfully hacked away at a massive log, seemingly just for the hell of it.
The scent of fresh pine mingled with the lingering aromas of the specialties we’d just tasted, creating an intoxicating blend that was undeniably South Tyrolean. Laughter roared from the lumberjack crew as they swung their blades, making a spirited mess that was much more pleasant than what the cows left behind.
Eventually, as the late afternoon sun bathes the village square in the golden hues of October, the parade gradually concludes. But the festive spirit of Almabtrieb? We discovered that lingers well into the night.
How to Dive into the Almabtrieb Festivities
Historically, Almatrieb celebrations were strictly a local affair, but today, transhumance festivals draw in thousands of visitors, each eager to partake in the age-old customs and festivities that unfold. Its popularity is no surprise really. We find that more and more people, like us, seek authentic experiences and a real connection to the past through tradition. In a world that’s rapidly changing, there’s comfort in the enduring rituals that remain unchanged.
To witness Almabtrieb in Lajen is to step into a living, breathing postcard of South Tyrol. You will adore the village’s charm which spills from every cobbled alley and the smiles of the locals who are happy to share the tradition.
The traditional festival is held on the first Sunday in October, which is Rosary Sunday, an important religious day to many in the region. It starts at 10 AM and winds down after the cattle drive parade, which begins rolling at 3 PM. If you are driving in Italy, parking is available outside the village square or you can take public transportation to reach Lajen.
How to Reach Lajen to Attend Almabtrieb 2023
Lajen is located where the lush Valle Isarco meets the entrance to the famed Val Gardena. The village can be reached less than 40 minutes from Bolzano. In addition to the Almabtrieb festival, it is a stellar base for enjoying some of the best hikes in the Dolomites, which include on Alpe di Siusi, Seceda, Sassolungo, and more.
Enjoying Almabtrieb Elsewhere
Elsewhere in South Tyrol, Almabtrieb takes place throughout much of September and early October. Other villages host their own renditions of transhumance. Each is unique in its own way, yet they all celebrate the same essence of gratitude and unity. And the stars of the events are not always cows. For example, in the village of Partschins (Parcines), near Merano, 1,300+ heads of sheep are driven down from the high altitude pastures of Cime di Tel (Zeilspitze), a 9,800+ foot (3,000+ m) mountain. When they arrive at Rifugio Nasereit, a jubilant celebration commences.
If you would like to attend an Almabtrieb event but are not sure which of the cattle drives makes the most sense for your schedule, connect with us through our South Tyrol Trip Planning Services. We will give you all the Almabtrieb options available during your time of travel and help plan your visit. In addition, we will share details on other autumn festivals that may be of interest including Speckfest and the Merano Grape Festival.
By the way, transhumance is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Alps. It is a ritual held around the world. In fact, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, recognizes the significance of transhumance in shaping human history and culture. By doing so, UNESCO aims to raise awareness about the tradition and inspire its safeguarding for generations to come.