Fribourg and Neuchâtel Feature

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La Désalpe

When the Alpine grass thins out in the fall, the cows of Haute Gruyère are led down to the village stables—in style, with huge bells around their necks and flowers and pine branches wound through their horns. Not to be outdone by their beasts, the cowherds wear their Sunday best: typically, a dark blue jacket embroidered with edelweiss motifs and puffy short sleeves that optically double the width of the wearers' shoulders. With their black-trimmed straw caps, fancy pipes, and bushy beards, the men are the real stars of the day. The women, in red-checked aprons and flat straw hats, stay in the background. To avoid two weeks of continual congestion on the roads, the foothill villages of Charmey (last Saturday in September) and Albeuve (first Saturday in October) have the herds descend together, making a folk festival of it. Decorated cows, heifers, sheep, goats, and even pigs are paraded through the streets from 9 am until about 3 pm. The partying goes on all day, with flag throwing, marching bands, alpenhorn playing, and stalls selling Bénichon specialties. (Originally a benediction of the church, Bénichon has become a harvest celebration.) Watch for the poyas adorning the front walls of Gruyères farmhouses. These are naive-style paintings of cows filing up to the high pastures in spring. They advertise which breed the farmer owns and symbolize hope for a productive summer. (Before the 1820s, cheese was only made up on the Alps, where the cows had the lushest grass, so farmers had four months a year to make their living.)

Updated: 09-2013

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