Move Over Mountains, Cows Are the Real Reason to Visit Switzerland

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The title seems silly, doesn’t it? The landscape of the Swiss Alps is some of the world’s most jaw-dropping, and yet a bigger selling point of Switzerland is…cows? Animals that are seemingly the sole inhabitants of miles (and miles…and miles…) of the most boring interstates in America? Perhaps cows are a novelty if you’re a coastal denizen who has never stepped outside the concrete jungle of Manhattan or the surf cities of California, right?

I’m from the farmland of Michigan, and lived in Indiana (albeit Indianapolis–not exactly cow country) for a decade. I’m no stranger to “bovine culture.” I had family who farmed, and come in contact with enough cows for one lifetime. I’ve stared into the abyss of a cow’s vapid eyes, trying to discover whether there’s something more to these creatures. (There isn’t.) Suffice to say, I don’t think I’m the type that’s easily impressed by some cows.

Yet, I was by the cows of Switzerland. You could say I was “warned” of this in advance of our trip. I recall watching a Rick Steves special in which he seemed unduly fixated on the cows of Switzerland. I recall thinking, “c’mon Rick, you’re a man of the world and you’re blabbering on about cows?!” And then we arrived, and I found myself similarly transfixed by the cows of Switzerland…

To be honest, the draw of cows in Switzerland was not merely the cows, themselves. Context played a big part in their appeal. It was really cool to drive or wander around, seeing rolling green foothills grazed by cows, dotted with Swiss Chalet houses along the landscape, and the Alps as a backdrop.

This is life for many in the Berner Oberland region, where the bygone era of family farming still exists, and so much of life seems dictated by the sake of tradition and heritage.

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Cows, seemingly, lie at the center of that heritage. Not only are cows important to the subsistence of farmers in Switzerland, but they are venerated. There are cow festivals (festivals–plural) in honor of the ascent and descent into the alpine meadows. During these festivals, there are cow parades during which the cattle are adorned with headdresses of flowers and other decorations.

Year-round, farmers strap large bells to their cows. This started as a means of keeping track of livestock that might’ve wandered away, but with modern technology now making far easier work of that, it likely exists for the sake of tradition. Families spend high sums of money on their ornate cow bells, which looked almost like a Swiss twist on a family crest. (Decorative cow bells are also hung in houses and business establishments, and are available for purchase throughout Switzerland–and online!)

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This might seem like a lot of meaning to impute on some cows, but after being there, it just made sense. It wasn’t as if the Swiss had some illogical reverence towards cows–more that they concisely encapsulated farm life in Switzerland.

So, if you’ve ever asked (and you probably have not), “when is a cow not just a cow?” My answer: in Switzerland.

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As a visitor, this ‘significance’ of cows rubs off on you pretty easily. Not only can they be seen everywhere, but they can be heard everywhere. No matter where you were, you hear the melodious sound of cow bells.

That might sound like it could get annoying, but it actually has a calming effect. It is like the Swiss version of wind chimes, or peaceful background music. However, it wasn’t until we had a close encounter of the cow kind that I really gained an appreciation for Switzerland’s cows…

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One of my travel mantras is “planned spontaneity.” It might seem like I travel with surgical precision when you read the advice and tips on this blog (or perhaps not?) but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of my adventures include getting lost, exploring random places, and generally having no clue what I’m doing. You might not believe it, but this is totally by design.

While I like to have a structured itinerary when hitting popular spots (to avoid crowds) or when it comes to landscapes (for the best photography conditions), when it comes to exploring a place, I usually lack any sort of a plan. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve just wandered around cities, getting lost in the process and finding hidden gems. In the era of Google Maps, you’re never really lost, but this allows us to discover the true essence of a place we’re visiting, and have fun surprises in the process. It also relieves the pressure of “completing” X number of spots in a day–as if traveling is a checklist.

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Such was the case one day in Switzerland when I had this epiphany about cows. We were literally just driving around looking at stuff, trying to figure out where we were going to go next. We couldn’t come up with a good plan on the fly, so we decided to pull into a random parking lot in Lauterbrunnen. Then, this happened:

Switzerland’s world famous “running of the cows.”

A post shared by Tom Bricker (@tom_bricker) on

I still have no idea why the lady in Lederhosen was leading cattle to the parking lot (based on what we could glean from interactions, maybe it was an auction?), but it was amazing to watch unfold. Watching this video instantly transports me back to that moment in Switzerland, and puts a smile on my face.

It’s one of my favorite memories of the trip, which may seem asinine given the incredible places we visited, but how many of you once got a super-cool toy for Christmas, but instead played with the box?

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The moral of the story is not that you should book a trip to Switzerland posthaste to have a life-changing encounter with these magnificent beasts. (To be sure, cows are not a more compelling reason to visit Switzerland than the Swiss Alps.) The lesson is much more subtle, and one that I’ve found repeats itself while traveling: you never know what is going to captivate your attention. It’s wise to have an itinerary and a plan to see popular points of interest, but it’s a good idea to plan in some downtime for random exploration, and getting lost in a place. Sometimes it’s the unexpected things and the surprise moments that really stick with you. Allow for and embrace these diversions while traveling, because you never know when you might find yourself mesmerized by cows.

If you’re planning a visit to Switzerland and want to know what we did…besides look at cows, check out my other Switzerland posts for ideas of what to do while there. I also highly recommend Rick Steves’ Switzerland to help better develop an efficient plan while there. 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Switzerland? Were you as entranced by the cows as me, or were they “just cows” to you? Any thoughts on our mantra of planned spontaneity? Other tips of your own to add? Questions about cow-watching in the Berner Oberland? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!

8 replies
  1. Patricia Brown
    Patricia Brown says:

    Yes! The cow bells are relaxing. I stayed atop the Burgenstock (between Pilatus and Rigi) for three trips about 10 years ago. The cows filled the grasslands below us and every night lulled us to sleep. I loved your analogy to wind chimes – the cow bells are so unique, yet such a calming sound.

    Reply
  2. Ingeborg donk
    Ingeborg donk says:

    I visit Switzerland ( grindelwald in berner oberland ) almost every year winter and summer and no one believes me when i say…..i love the swiss cows they are so much better than our Dutch cows. : ) yep you won’t believe it but their smell is even better! ? and swiss cows are so beautifull! I love the sound of the cowbells. Immagine a quiet top of the mountains and the hearing of cowbells……that really is relaxing! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Reply
  3. william McIntosh
    william McIntosh says:

    I can’t get over how GREEN everything is in autumn! I really hope my plans come together for a trip there next year. So gorgeous!

    Reply
  4. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I realize the title is a bit hyperbolic, but I can understand the sentiment. When I was in Switzerland a few years ago, I hiked to the top of Mt. Pilatus. After getting above the tree line and passing the cog railway station half-way up, I didn’t see another person for the next 1.5 hours. But I was surrounded by cows way up there on the mountain and their pleasant cowbell-tinkling. It was really a pretty cool experience.

    Reply

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