These cow festivals take place across several Swiss villages throughout the autumn months, as well as in neighboring France. Along with giving a chance to admire up close one of Switzerland's most-revered animals, the désalpes are also a prime opportunity for exploring a new area not far from your own backyard.
While St-Cergue has traditionally been my désalpe of choice, given its proximity to Geneva and its warm embrace of the cow-loving community, this year my friends and I decided it was time to visit cows living a little further afield. Morgins, a town in the Valais just over 90 minutes from Geneva by car and over two hours by train, is home to a large farming community with over 400 cows. The village is also part of the famous "Portes du Soleil," the popular Swiss-French network of ski stations.
Driving up to Morgins, we could feel our ears popping as we climbed in altitude, heading further and further up the winding roads into the hills. Arriving at the town square just before 11 AM on a Saturday morning, we quickly joined the small crowd that had gathered along the trails, eagerly anticipating the cow parade. We could hear the cows before we could see them: their bells ringing, their massive figures shuffling down the mountain. At last, they filed along in front of us, two or three at a time, decked out in flowery headgear and iron bells.
After a few dozen cows had paraded past us with their owners, we were left with a few hours to kill before the second major event of the day: the much-promised parading of more cow breeds. After stopping for a bite at La Buvette des Sports, a local restaurant with a wide selection of pizzas and fondues, we began our afternoon hike, taking a round-trip route which started on paved roads and finished on trails.
The hikes in the area are between beginners' and medium-level difficulty, with routes well-marked. The region's various trails are also used year-round among cyclists, snowshoers, dog-sledders, and the like, with the activity depending on the season. Walking up the road, we initially attempted to retrace in reverse the path taken by the cows as they had descended into the village, hoping to see where they had come from.
Over the space of two hours, we passed the occasional chalet and barn, along with several fields with nonchalant cattle staring us down. The mountain views were stunning – even on a cloudy, drizzly day, you could see clearly the famed Dents-du-Midi, a series of seven peaks in the Swiss Alps that is another popular destination for hikers. Another adventure for another day, perhaps.
Returning back through a forest into town for part two of the cow parade, we stopped by a local market that had been set up for the occasion. Wares for sale included several types of meats and cheeses; wood-carved objects such as cow-shaped clocks; apricot-infused liqueurs; and more.
By this point, the flower-bedecked cows of the morning had been replaced by larger, darker cows that appeared to resemble the Hérens breed, which is famous in the Valais: these are also known as the "fighting cows," after the tradition of facing off in head-butting contests. A clearly feistier bunch than the morning crowd, these cows had traded in flower headpieces for picture frames, miniature house models, and other adornments.
After giving the latest group of cows the admiration they were due, the looming threat of rain drove us back to our car, cutting our Morgins visit short. However, after learning about the myriad activities this Valaisan village has to offer throughout the seasons, it's just a matter of time before we return.