Temperatures are falling, the days are getting shorter and the larch trees are turning golden. Autumn is here, and it is time for Celerina’s colourful “Alpabzug”: the descent from the summer pastures. As the cows head down to the valley, spectators enjoy a splendid procession followed by lively festivity with music and delicious food.
There’s a buzz in the air, the atmosphere is festive: people have come from far and wide to Celerina to bid a cheerful and colourful farewell to the alpine summer. They have plenty of reasons to celebrate: the abundant milk produced by the cows, the healthy growth of the young cattle, a summer without accidents and illness up on the alpine pastures, the full haylofts and lots of maturing alpine cheese.
“S-chargeda d’alp” is the melodious Romansh name for the descent from the summer pastures: a process that begins the day before the big event for most of the young cattle, quietly and without spectators. The following morning, the milk cows are milked one last time up on the alpine pastures before they walk from an altitude of more than 2,000 m down to Celerina, where they enjoy a jubilant welcome from people of all ages. “The animals are brought down all at the same time only every five years,” says Elmar Bigger, who celebrated his 50th anniversary as a Celerina alpine dairy farmer in 2019. “Bringing 300 animals down together in one day is almost impossible.”
“Tschäppeln” is the Romansh word for the ritual of adorning the cows, which takes place at the Cresta Run car park. This is the starting point for the procession: covering about 3 km, it finishes at the fairground by San Gian. In the middle of all the bustle, the sturdy animals come across as a calming presence as they are cleaned and groomed. Magnificent, skilfully made crowns of flowers give them a majestic air, and the big “Trycheln” (cowbells) around their necks seem to declare: “Just look how beautiful I am!”
At the head of the procession, the alpine dairyman walks proudly with two very special cows: the best and the most beautiful. The first has provided the most milk over the summer and clearly deserves the honour; beauty, however, lies in the eye of the beholder – namely the farmer. The two venerable champions wear crowns of honour with a Swiss cross made of red and white flowers. Next come their crowd of followers: beautifully adorned cows, the herders and cheese-makers in their traditional outfits, a group of bell-ringers in costume called “S-cheleders La Margna”, and the children, who sell sweet pastries called “Buatschinas d’alp” (“alpine cowpats”) to the applauding spectators. The “Duonnas da la s-chargeda Schlarigna” bake no less than 50 kg of this delicacy for the procession and to sell in the marquee.
Every five years, in other words on minor anniversaries, Celerina moves its “Alpabzug” from the traditional Friday to a Saturday, to allow even more people to take part in the big event. Participants, locals, guests and spectators enjoyed especially grand and jubilant festivities in 2019 when Elmar Bigger proudly celebrated 50 years of work on Celerina’s two alpine summer pastures of Laret and Marguns. Highlights included performances by various musicians and bands, and a display of vintage tractors.
After the cheerful crowds have left the ancient alleys of Celerina, they gather again at the fairground by the church of San Gian, where music and gastronomic treats ensure an exuberant atmosphere for the rest of the day. An ecumenical service offers a communal occasion for contemplation and thanks. By then, the cows are already on their journey to their well-deserved winter quarters in the canton of St. Gallen. They only return the following June for a new alpine summer, once the winter snows have melted up on high.