If you’ve ever heard the phrase “until the cows come home” and wondered exactly when that is, then Viehscheid, the autumn festival in the Allgäu region of Bavaria, provides your answer. There the cows arrive on schedule during bright fall mornings in late September, by the score, and with enough cowbell to satisfy even Christopher Walken.
Like its more inebriated cousin, Munich’s Oktoberfest, Viehscheid involves large steins of beer, men in Lederhosen and women in traditional dirndl dresses, But here, the men’s leather shorts have the sheen of years of hard use and the women wear the same dresses they wear every day. And although the grass lots around town are full of BMWs and Audis driven in by tourists from the cities, the party feels like the homecoming it is.
My wife and I first encountered Viehscheid by accident. We had booked a room at the Landhaus Waibelhof in the Allgäu, a region in the southernmost part of Germany, nestled into the Alps and bordered by Austria and Switzerland. The little family run inn, just outside the tiny village of Gunzesrei, resembles dozens of others that dot the mountainsides: working farms with spotless rooms, fantastic views and window boxes overflowing with flowers.
One morning we were sitting at one of dozen or so tables in the full dining room, working through a breakfast buffet of strong coffee, muesli, charcuterie, cheese, and freshly harvested eggs when a metallic din intruded in the morning quiet. The other guests stood as one and made their way to the roadside in front of the inn, urging us to follow. There we watched as hundreds of belled and beribboned bovines rattled by. Many sported wreaths, as well. The innkeeper laughed at our looks of confusion.
She explained that every hamlet in the region holds their own Viehscheid celebration, welcoming home the cowherds from their hundred-day-long summer stay in the high Alpine meadows, where they’ve been tending the village’s livestock. The whole town turns out in the city center to celebrate the summer’s hard work and the herd’s safe return. The daylong celebration starts as the decorated livestock come down from the mountains and parade through the village, and then lasts throughout the day with a beer tent, polka bands, dancing, and lots of schnitzel, schnapps and pretzels.
Later that day we found ourselves in the village center, hoisting oversized steins of beer and watching reunited friends polka long into the night. If the dirndled women had not been smoking cigarettes and the cowherds had not been chatting on cell phones, I’d have sworn I was on a movie set.
In fact, the whole region feels a lot like a movie set: quaint hamlets scattered among vast green alpine meadows and snowcapped peaks. Cows, goats and even llamas dot the landscape and a liter of good beer costs less than a soda. Our favorite area within the Allgäu is the Hornerdorfer, a necklace of five villages — Fischen, Bolsterlang, Obermaiselstein, Balderschwang, and Ofterschwang. Each village has its own personality and accommodations, but we usually stay at the Nebelhorn Relaxhotel in Obmermaiselstein to enjoy its spectacular views, spotless rooms, excellent service and beautiful spa. With current exchange rates, rooms range from $100-$150 per night, with breakfast included.
The area has a long history of tourism, mostly around the 19th century idea of “taking the air” for various ailments. Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th century Catholic priest, became famous for his “water cure” for tuberculosis and other illnesses, and his methodology still holds sway throughout his Bavarian homeland. For the American tourist, that means that even the humblest hotel will often have a dedicated spa and sauna. After a day of hiking to a mountaintop, the sauna is always a welcome pleasure, even if the expectation of full nudity is a little off-putting for this American.
That tradition also leads to an “early-to-bed” ethos. The Allgäu is not a place to come for the nightlife. By nine thirty, it is unusual to hear anything other than wind, ever-present cowbells, and the village church bells marking the hour. Village restaurant kitchens close by nine p.m., and you should make a point of being there earlier. the staff is perfectly comfortable turning diners away when they are ready to call it a night.
In the smaller villages, the fare is exclusively traditional Bavarian. Schnitzel and sausage is a must, along with the prerequisite potato salad. Game is not unusual, with elk a favorite. Broiled fish often proves to be the lightest option. Simple red sauce Italian buca are also common on menus — no surprise given that the Italian border is just a few hours away. Regardless of your preference, the plates come out piled high with flavorful food, and after hours of high-altitude hiking, you’ll be tempted to lick them clean.
If you are looking for something a little more cosmopolitan, Oberstdorf serves as the region’s cultural center and a perennial host for international winter sports competitions. It’s best known to American audiences as the sight of Vinko Bogataj’s infamously dreadful ski jump fail immortalized as “The Agony of Defeat” in the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The tall green ski jump is still there, standing well above every structure in the town. Accompanying the town’s fame is a wider range of hotels and dining options, as well as a more touristy feel.
The region draws visitors almost exclusively from other parts of Germany. After multiple visits, I have still not encountered another American. But not to worry, the locals take pride in their hospitality, and are happy to try out their grade-school English.
If you have the urge to mingle among American tourists, seek nearby NeuSchwanstein Castle, which served as the model for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle and is an hour’s drive from the Hornerdorfer towns.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a “My friend went to Viehschied and all I got was this stupid t-shirt” vendor anywhere, but what the region lacks in tourist trinkets it makes up for with unforgettable landscapes.
The real pleasure to an Autumn trip to the alps is the hiking. Jagged peaks, forested mountainsides, lush green meadows, and tile-roofed villages strung along the valley floors make it difficult to resist twirling around with arms outstretched, and belting out the chorus of “The Sound of Music”.
Alpine hiking is a national pastime in Germany, and they’ve built the infrastructure for it. Trails are well blazed and many popular ones are graded to allow even a novice to hike to a summit safely. Yellow blazes mark an easy climb, red blazes are more challenging, and blue can be treacherous.
But nearly any mountaintop in the region can be reached with a few hours effort. If you’ve not mountain hiked before, all you really need is a water bottle, a pair of trekking poles, and a good pair of shoes. I upgraded from hiking shoes to boots for our 2016 trip, and not only did I feel more sure-footed, but my ankles and my knees appreciated the investment.
Even if you aren’t a seasoned alpine trekker, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the mountains. Trails marked in the valley floors will wind from one hamlet to the next through forests and meadows and pastures filled with cows, goats, sheep and llamas. For the less ambitious, many of the ski lifts operate year round, and a few euros will spare you hours of climbing up and down the mountains.
One of the best part of any Bavarian hike is arriving at an Alpe for lunch. These stopover huts, built on mountainsides or high meadows, are usually functioning dairies that also serve beer and simple local foods. The traditional hiking meal is the Brotzeit, or “bread time;” cured ham and other charcuterie, pickles, tomato and slices of hearty dark bread along with unctuous house butter, and oftentimes a little schmaltz. You can also get a schnitzel, soup, or other hearty fare.
Bavarians tend to stick with pilsner style beers. In the era of hops overload in America, it’s a real pleasure to rediscover beers that go down so easily.
If you aren’t up for a beer, there’s always delicious chocolate cakes and apple pies.
We Americans are not used to drinking raw milk, but if you feel adventurous, an Alpe is the ideal place to try it. German regulations require that the raw milk served by the glass has to have been produced on that farm either that day or the day before, and you’ll never have a better sense for the health of the animals than when you hike through their pastures. Still thick with cream, the milk tastes indulgently rich, with the flavor of the mountain grass adding a wonderful brightness. It makes you want to hold a glass up to the light and discuss its terroir.
Somehow, a trip to the Allgäu always comes back to the cows. After a week there, you might find yourself envying them those long summers in the high meadows, and require a little herding to get you back home.
Be prepared to use cash. Many businesses do not take credit cards, especially the family hotels.
Like many mountain areas, the Allgaü has microclimates from town to town. Bring rain gear.
Trekking poles or hiking poles are de rigeur and are a big help getting up and down the mountains.
Most hotels supply their guests with tourist cards. Carry them with you—they’ll get you free rides on some ski lifts and other facilities.
The Allgaü is convenient to both the Munich and the Stuttgart airports so shop for your best fare using both.
Where to stay
Landhaus Waibelhof. A beautiful little country farmhouse hotel. Talstraße 74 D - 87544 Gunzesried
Nebelhorn Relaxhotel. A great modern, small hotel in a small town. Am Herrenberg 10
+49 (0) 83 26.38 69 68 0
Hotel Oberstdorf. A more sophisticated, pricier hotel in the region’s cultural center. Reute 20, 87561 Oberstdorf, Germany
+49 8322 940770