The Coming of the Cows: a Tirolean Tradition

by frankbeswick

The annual celebration of the descent of the cows from their Summer pastures is a great day in Val Gardena

Traditions enrich our lives and our cultures, and the annual celebration of the descent of the cows from their high alpages, the pastures well above the valleys where they spend the Summer, is a great day in Selva Val Gardena, the beautiful village near the end of the Garden Valley. The ceremony is held on the second Sunday of September and the farming families compete for the honour of having the best decoration of the horns of the cow that they have selected. Rivalry is strong, but the day is a joyful and lively affair, and this year Maureen and I were privileged to be spectators.

Thumbnail The lifelike carved wooden bird adorns the Vallunga valley where the cows come down.Photo by Frank Beswick

First Encounter

We heard the cows before we saw them, not surprising in a valley rich in conifer trees. Maureen and I were taking the chance of a September holiday, the first holiday in that month that we had ever had, for as teachers September was when we returned to school; but this year was to be different, for to mark her retirement Maureen wanted a September vacation, somewhere interesting. She chose Selva Val Gardena, and we were very happy with what has turned out to be an inspired choice. So the two of us went walking, enjoying the vague boundary time between Summer and Fall, beneath the bare bulk of the towering Dolomites and among the evergreen trees that thrive in the valleys. 

Vallunga is a valley just above Selva that serves as a park for the town. Citizens and visitors walk on well constructed paths between steep, tree covered slopes. The land is dotted with trees in small woods or singly, and the grass is well trimmed. Maureen and I were walking towards the end of the valley in the morning when we heard the sound of bells and the distant calls of the drovers. I knew then that I was hearing the sounds of a practice that has persisted for thousands of years. We increased our pace and I arrived in time to see the cows emerging from the conifer forest. The farmer and his family were there, the males mainly, but do not think of this as a male-only custom. We were later to see the women clad in their traditional costume. I am no  expert on women's clothes [or men's for that matter] but think of Snow White and you are not far away. It's  reasonable, for if the women want to wear their best dresses, they need to keep some distance from potentially mucky cattle. But that did not prevent one young girl in beautiful costume helping me when I tripped and cut my hand. Her father, the farmer,  helped me up, and she gave me some tissue to stem the [slight] wound. A really nice family. 

Transhumance farming has been an alpine custom for millennia. In Spring the cows are driven into the high valleys just below the snow-line to feast on the herb-rich pastures. They have first been mated and they birth their calves naturally in the heights. Traditionally the young people were involved in the droving, as the climb is steep. But they had been well versed in the paths to take. In September the cows return for winter, followed by their calves. We were to notice a sturdy looking calf suckling her mother. The cows are then kept in the lower pastures or sometimes indoors when the alpine snows are at their worst.

We noticed that among the herd of cows, all of which wore bells around their necks for easy location, one wore an ornate collar. This was the one that had been selected to have her horns adorned with a flower wreath, a grand affair constructed by the family's womenfolk and possibly children.  

The Muster Point

The Cows at the Mustering
The Cows at the Mustering
Frank Beswick

The Build Up

The ceremony consists of an open air mass at the small chapel  in the  valley at which the cows are blessed. In this deeply and happily Catholic area to bless is to consecrate your activities to God, bringing God into all that you do.We did not attend that mass, as the chapel is too small for the large congregation, who would have to stand outside, and as I have a problematic back, standing for too long would have been arduous, so we attended mass at the local church the night before.

The build up consists of a happy celebration centred around the restaurant in the valley. We  had lunched back in our room at the hotel,  then returned to Vallunga, where we went to the restaurant to savour the festival atmosphere. I was very impressed by the band, a group of three young men who played good music for a sustained period and who obviously enjoyed what they were doing.  The music suited the occasion, and the lads exuded a joyful presence. These lads deserved their pay, as did the hard working staff who served the food and drink.

Maureen and I found a shaded place,necessary in the bright light, especially as we are both fair skinned. Then as we waited we enjoyed drinks and cake,in her case apple juice ,in my case a beer or two [two in fact.] I don't know what the cake was called,but it was good, a loaf in whose centre peach  jam oozed. These Tiroleans know how to make good food.

Then as the time approached we took our places at the ringside. The crowds were gathering and the farmers' womenfolk had already found their places where they could stand in their ceremonial attire and applaud. We were not near them.They knew where to stand for the best view. Experience! 

The Cows Come

Farmer leading his Entry
Farmer leading his Entry
Frank Beswick

The Cows' Arrival

Maureen was first to spot them, a column of small figures descending from the mustering point. "They' coming!" she cried and we scrambled to our feet. Nearby a young mother retrieved her infant from the droveway out of the cows' path. Cries of excitement went up from the crowd.  

They came past, with the adorned cows leading and the others kept behind. Each cow was led by the farmer. It was no light task, for each cow weighed much more than a man. There were occasions when the farmer had to physically grapple with the cow when it strayed, and I saw the muscle required for the job.There were sturdy men driving large beasts. The men were not in national dress, for this was a heavy job that  required work clothes. 

Yet women and children accompanied them down  One matron carried a conical wicker basket on her back as she strode authoritatively down to the ring in her Tirolean dress. I was later to see her retrieving her cow's horn adornment to carry home in the basket.She acquired a role giving out the contestants' numbers to them. I get the feeling that she liked to organise. I saw children in the ranks, herding the unadorned cows down. One girl of about eleven impressed me with her control of cattle, and she too walked in national costume, but to be fair she had a brother of about thirteen who did just as well.

As the languages in which the proceedings were carried out were French, German and the local language Ladin, I could not tell you much about what the judge said, but we saw the cattle parading the ring displaying their adornments. One was adorned with the Catholic symbol IHS [Iesu Hoc Sacramentum] and this pleased  me, though she did not win. 

The cheers went up as the first, second and third were decided. I think that the matron's entry came second and the impressive pair of children came third. The cows were paraded again led by the  three winners. then all dispersed and the ceremony was over.

As one who loves country shows it was a lovely day for me, and Maureen has read it over to see how far it conforms to her experience. Tradition is a wonderful thing that enriches our lives. For  a day I was privileged to be a spectator, but when I applauded I became for a brief moment a participant in the tradition. 

An Entrant

An Entrant
An Entrant
Frank Beswick
Updated: 09/14/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 09/19/2019

Thanks Derdriu, I did not know of Basque traditions in South West USA.

Decorations don't impede vision. Cattle wear bell collars throughout the year, but selected ones wear an ornamental wreath around the head and neck as well.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/19/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photographs, practicalities and products related to you and your wife's celebration in northern Italy of her retirement from teaching.
Transhumance-related celebrations are an enduring, photogenic part of Basque settlement throughout the American Southwest.
Do the cows have impeded vision with the decorations? Would the bell collars be the same throughout the year or would they be decorated for the descent-related festivities?

frankbeswick on 09/15/2018

I would return to Selva, but we currently have no plans to do so. We stayed at the Oswald Hotel, which offers lovely gourmet food.

Veronica on 09/15/2018

I had heard of Alpine cow bells but I just hadn't expected them to be so large.

Would you return to Selva one day ? The Alps are a favourite of ours . Over the border into Slovenia is even more beautiful.

frankbeswick on 09/15/2018

I saw a bell even bigger than the ones depicted, but I did not get into a position to obtain a good photograph of it.

Veronica on 09/15/2018

You have depicted the size of those cow bells very clearly. They are indeed surprisingly large and I was taken aback when I first saw them in Selva del Gardena.

The letter y is not really used in Italian except in foreign words.

frankbeswick on 09/14/2018

Yes,it was slow paced, but I had overalooked that aspect, so thanks for your observation. Similarly, thanks for your comment on alternative spellings.

blackspanielgallery on 09/14/2018

Local customs are often interesting. This is particularly nice, and from your description, slow paced.
I did not know of the area, so I looked it up. Both spellings seem to be interchangeable, and both acceptable.

frankbeswick on 09/14/2018

I was using the spelling that is used by the people of that area.

Veronica on 09/14/2018

I would spell Tyrolean with a y not an i .

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