MySwitzerland: Alpine Life

Living the alpine lifestyle – where mountains are moved

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From festive processions to your own mountain hut, you can experience the Swiss Alps lifestyle for yourself with a good dose of folk Swiss culture, world-famous cheeses and clean mountain air.

Alpine living has a strong link in folk Swiss culture, and a rich variety of cultural festivities and traditions have been preserved around the activities associated with farming the Swiss alpine slopes.

It's a rugged life that looks idyllic at first, but in reality involves a lot of hard work. Yet out of this arduous living has come world-renown Swiss delights, including alpine cheeses such as Gruyère, Comté and Emmental. Each year, visitors also enjoy when the 'cows come home', the seasonal ascending and descending of alpine dairy herdsmen, women and cows, all adorned in elaborate folklore costumes. The end of the Alpine summer brings the carnival (Älplerchilbi) a centuries-old tradition to enjoy eating, music and dance. It's no wonder then that city-dwellers easily find excuses to spend their holidays in the clear alpine air.

The life of an alpine herder and farmer

Alpine pastures are mainly located above the tree line and are only used during the summer months. Without this Alpine farming, it would have barely been possible for there to have been any significant Alpine settlements from Neolithic times up until the economic upheavals of the 19th century.

Alpine farming takes the pressure off the meadows in the valleys and enables the vital stockpiling of resources for the winter. Even today, Alpine farmland accounts for around 35 percent of agriculturally usable land in Switzerland. In summer, about 20 percent of the total number of livestock grazes on these 7,500 Alpine farms for 100 days. They are supported by 12,000 Alpine herdsmen and women.

The alpine lifestyle

The herdsmen and women on the Alps in the summer are mainly responsible for looking after the cattle belonging to the farmers. Their job is to drive the cattle to pasture, milk them twice a day and make cheese. At the end of September, the cows and cowherds return back to the valley. If the whole valley farm moves up into the Alps in summer, then it is referred to as an Alpine farm. Typical of this economic system are the Alpine villages, which make social life possible. Life on an Alp is marked by hard work and little comfort – as well as by memorable experiences and exposure to spectacular natural beauty.

MySwitzerland: Living in the Alps

When the cows come home

The ascent and descent of the alpine cattle, or transhumance, is a spectacle to watch. Even before the start of the summer, the herdsmen and women dressed in traditional costumes move the elaborately decorated animals up from the valley farms while being admired by many onlookers and folklore fans. The cattle are driven back down into the valleys in the autumn. Once again, the festive procession of costumed herdspeople and decorated animals attracts thousands of spectators and culminates in various festivities.

The alpine blessing and call to prayer

In many parts of the Catholic Alpine regions, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, the old herdsmen’s prayer, the Bättruf (call to prayer) or Alpsäge (Alpine blessing) is offered up in the evening after work. It is a unanimous, unaccompanied chant in a High German coloured by the use of a local dialect. The hands are held over the mouth like a funnel or a wooden milk funnel is used. In this manner, a call is made to all four directions of the compass to Mary and the patron saints and protection requested for all living beings and all possessions on the Alp.

As a supposedly pagan blessing of the cattle, the Bättruf was officially banned by the Lucerne government in 1609. Only later, a Jesuit priest, Johann Baptist Dillier (1668-1745), reinterpreted this ancient cattle-related invocation into a Christian one by, among other things, converting the form of the call from Loba (for calling on the cows) into 'God be praised' and thus creating a Christian context from the 'cattle blessing'.

Alpine call to prayer

Celebrating the alpine carnival

The completion of the alpine summer is widely celebrated with a carnival (Älplerchilbi) a centuries-old tradition that brings the farmers together after a rich Alpine summer to give thanks to God for the gifts received, and then to enjoy a time of eating, music and dance. The form varies depending on the size of the locality and on the local traditions. Especially in the area around the Rigi (Central Switzerland) the 20th century saw the introduction of variations to these festivals with a focus on street parades, and thus on the (re)presentation of Alpine life and traditions in general. Here they are called Sennenchilbi (herdsmen’s festivals) and each time attract a nationwide audience of up to 30,000 visitors.

Staying on an Alp

City-dwellers often come and stay in the mountains, and the dream of fresh air, unspoilt mountain scenery, and distance from everyday urban stresses attracts people such as lawyers, teachers, doctors and artists to come and watch over the cattle in summer. There are other ways to get to experience the Alpine lifestyle too: some Alpine farms offer guided tours for tourists including visits to dairies, and other guests may help with the milking, mucking out or fence repairing. Some mountain huts can be rented for holidays.

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Reprinted with permission of My Switzerland.

My is the offical website of Switzerland Tourism, providing information on Switzerland in more than 15 languages. You can also find them on Facebook.

 Photo credits: bohringer friedrich (herding sheep), Afoot (Alpine call to prayer). 


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