It was 6.30 in the morning when the taxi came to pick me up to bring me to Zell am Ziller in the Zillertal region of Austria. There, I'd meet the family Nachtschatten to join them in their Almabtrieb festival.
What is an Almabtrieb festival?
When it's summer in Austria, the Austrian mountain cows stay – exactly – high up in the mountains. But when fall starts, the farmers bring them down to their homes in the valley where they'll spend winter. They get the cows dressed up and walk with them for several hours to reach their home, where they're welcomed by the entire village.
This cow parade and the party that follows when the cows come home is known as the “Almabtrieb festival”. It's one of the traditional festivals in Austria that is still widely participated in.
The cattle drives of the cows in Austria take place around the end of September but not all on the same date. It's the farmers who decide when they'll organize their cattle drive.
Joining the Almabtrieb from Zell am Ziller to Bruck am Ziller
Last weekend, I joined the family Nachtschatten as they brought their cattle home from the mountains in Gerlos to Bruck am Ziller in the valley.
I didn't join them all the way, though. Do you know what time they get up? In the middle of the night!
Preparations start the day beforehand when all the cows are washed and cleaned. The farmers go to bed early that night, because shortly after midnight Hannes, the farmer, already gets up to milk the cows and start work. Around 4 a.m. the family has breakfast together before they load the cows onto a truck that'll bring them down to Zell am Ziller.
The reason they don't walk the cows down this part is that it's too dangerous for them to walk down the mountain in the dark.
Zell am Zimmer is where I joined the family as they were unloading the cattle.
All the big cows were lined up and attached to the fence while the young ones could roam around freely in the field. They all got a last scrub (or better: their bums did) so that they'd look their best once they'd get their decorations.
Yups, all the cows are decorated! They each get a “Bischl” or head decoration as well as an Austrian cowbell. It takes months to repare all the headpieces each year and sometimes new ones are made as well – all by hand.
While the decorations are ready, they haven't been coupled with their carriers yet and it takes quite a while before the farmer and his helpers have decided which cow will wear which headpiece and which alpine cowbell.
That decision is based on the weight of the decoration and the strength of the cow. The little ones get a small bell and a very light headpiece, while the strongest cows get the biggest and heaviest decorations.
The helpers are family and friends of the Nachtschatten and while the farmer's daughters are lending a hand as well, it's only the men (and boys) who give the cows their decorations.
You immediately understand why when you see them do it: it takes three men to dress up a big cow and even the little ones can put up quite the fight if they decide they don't want to get dressed yet.
The whole thing went pretty smoothly though and bystanders told me the cows were calmer this year than they'd been the year before. The whole process of unloading the 51 cows and getting them ready to start the big cattle drive took about three hours.
Around 10 a.m., the moment was finally there. The gate of the field was opened and the cows were lead onto the streets where the first spectators had already gathered to watch the beginning of the cattle parade.
Some of them (the cows, not the spectators) didn't quite know where to go at first, but thanks to the guidance of the farmers and their friends, they quickly followed the road.
They would walk for 23 kilometers before they reached the Zillerbruggerhof, the family's farm in Bruck im Zillertal in the Zillertal Arena valley.
Luckily, I didn't have to walk. I had a mountain bike at my disposal and so I rode out in front of the parade to take photos as they passed, rode out in front of them again to take photos and did this for about an hour and a half.
While doing so, it quickly became clear that the big cattle drive was a proper event. People hung outside their windows or were awaiting the cows on the streets to admire the decorative cowbells and headpieces.
And boy, could you hear them coming! I actually put paper tissues in my ears after a while as they were just so loud.
I followed as they took a quick break at a town's fountain to drink and I followed as the farmers were awaited by a platter of beer in the town of Stumm.
They'd keep going for another four hours, but I decided to head to the hotel for a bit. I had a couple of reasons for this.
Secondly, I was starving. Y'all know I need to be fed at regular intervals and with just a small breakfast at 6 a.m. and a snack around 9 a.m., I was starving. I had packed a bunch of cookies in my daypack, but I figured I'd be more relaxed eating them at the hotel than somewhere by the road.
Lastly and most importantly, I wanted to get back to the hotel because Zillertal Tourismus had lent me a Dirndl, a traditional Tyrolian dress, to wear at the cattle festival. So I wanted to go back and change before the cows came home.
Alas, that didn't happen.
Well, I did get back to the hotel, but I didn't attend the cow festival in a Dirndl.
According to Google Maps, the entire ride, starting from Zell am Ziller, was supposed to take me an hour and 10 minutes. As I'd already covered a part with the cows, I figured it would take me about 45 minutes to get to the hotel.
*Buzzer sound* Wrong.
It took me a little over an hour and when I got there I was soaking in sweat. It would be mainly flat, they said. It would be easy, they said.
Well, it was Austrian flat :D
That left me with less than an hour to upload some things, take a shower and change my outfit if I wanted to be in time to welcome home the cows. I did all that and even put on the Dirndl when I realized I had to take the mountain bike to the farm – or I'd have to walk 3 kilometers in the Dirndl and risk being a bit late.
Full of regret – wearing traditional wear to a local event was on my bucket list, after all – I decided to do what I usually do: I put comfort first.
I already saw the skirt of the Dirndl wind up in between the bike's chains, making me lose my balance and fall flat into some cow dung only meters before arriving at the farm. I couldn't risk it.
So I slid (read: squirmed myself) into my jeans again and hit the road.
I arrived at the farm when the parade was supposed to arrive, but they'd been delayed (that Austrian cattle is rebellious! :D) and so I waited for an hour or so before I could hear their bells announcing their arrival.
At this point, a crowd had gathered along both sides of the street and in front of the farm. People who were first eating and drinking stopped their business to welcome the farmers and their cattle as they finally walked onto their valley field, one mountain cow looking fresher than the other.
People lined up to talk to the family and their helpers. Others stepped out into the field to take photos of the cows. That wasn't hard to do now. They were so tired they took a rest in the grass.
One alpine cow laid down its head, another watched its two-legged visitors with little interest.
After a while, everybody headed up to the farm for drinks, traditional Austrian food and chatting.
Some people approached me but I couldn't understand a word of their Zillertal accent and their English was pretty much non-existent. Luckily, Wiepke and Tineke were there.
I'd met Wiepke and Tineke in Zell am Zimmer in the morning. Both Dutch, they moved to Belgium more than 30 years ago and had been staying with the Nachtschatten family on annual trips to Zillertal for 15 years now.
As the Nachtschattens didn't really speak English either, they told me all they'd learned about the Almabtrieb during their past holidays and pointed out who was who at the party.
They were lovely people and I got so lucky they just happened to be there when I was.
Yet at 5.30 p.m., I knew it was time for me to go. The next night a taxi would pick me up at 4.50 a.m. to drive to Munich Airport, where I'd catch my flight back home.
My time in Zillertal was short, but I'll never forget my first Almabtrieb!
You can go on a cattle drive too!
As a blogger, I sometimes get invited to do things that “normal” travelers wouldn't be able to do. I usually say no to those as I want to be able to share experiences that you can have as well.
If you want to join an Almabtrieb, that's perfectly possible. I saw other people following the cow parade for a while as well to take photos or film and everyone is welcome at the party at the end. In fact, that part is a way for the farmers to make some money from the cows festival as they sell food and drinks there.
What to pack to attend an Almabtrieb
If you just want to see the parade pass, you may want to bring a refillable water bottle, some snacks, sunscreen, and sunglasses to keep you hydrated, nurtured, and protected while you're outside waiting.
If you want to follow the parade, decent shoes are recommended.
My Zillertal hotel
I actually stayed in two different places on this trip. The first night, I stayed at the Maria Theresia hotel in Gerlos and the second night I stayed at Hotel Post in Strass, just 3 km from the Zillerbruggerhof where the cows came home.
Both hotels offer breakfast and have their own restaurants. Because I had to leave before breakfast started twice, they both made me a breakfast-to-go with sandwiches and fruit, which I really appreciated.
Here's a tour of my room at the Maria Theresia:
And here's a photo of a part of my room at Hotel Post:
Want to stay in these places as well?
You can check reviews, prices, and availability for the Maria Theresia here and for the Hotel Post here.
How to get to Zillertal
You can either fly or drive to Zillertal because while there are some train stations, there's no way to really travel to all the places you'll want to go by train in the mountains. If you fly in, you'll either need to take a shuttle from the airport and then taxis to get around or – much easier – rent a car.
To get a good overview of your flight options, check Skyscanner.
To make sure you get the best car rental deal, have a look at check RentalCars.com which compares more than 900 rental car companies and has a best-price-guarantee.
Pin for later
I was invited to Zillertal by the Zillertal Tourism Board. The choice to enjoy the Almabtrieb was entirely mine.