Silly me, I always thought I’d visit Gstaad for its alpine skiing. Nope! I came for its annual cow parade.
Each year, in late summer, Switzerland’s dairy cows descend from their high alpine pastures to the chalet-studded villages below. In Gstaad, this annual cow parade, known as the züglete, is an all-day affair, one that’s equally cheesy and moo-ving. But before I dish about that, let me share a half dozen other reasons to visit Gstaad before snow blankets the mountains and the skiers arrive.
Soar to Glacier 3000
Take the cable car from Col du Pillon, ascending 3,000 meters to the highest point in the Vaudois Alps. Capping Glacier 3000 is a solid, visually arresting, glass-and-stone building designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta. From here, the panorama takes in some of Switzerland’s iconic peaks: Jungfrau, Matterhorn, and Eiger.
Ratchet up the thrills and views on the Peak Walk by Tissot. This narrow, pedestrian, suspension bridge connecting two peaks is not for those fearing heights. Look out not down, I kept telling myself. Below, a knife’s edge summit ridge plummets on each side. And yes, the bridge wobbles as pedestrians pad across it. Like many, I white-knuckled the railings. The reward: Jaw-dropping, 360-degree views extending to Mont Blanc from the fenced-in, peak-topping terrace.
Keep adrenaline flowing by careening down the world’s highest bobsleigh track. Suspended six meters above the ground, it comprises 10 twists of varying steepness, six waves, and three jumps before ending with a 520-degree spiral. I thought twice about doing this, but knowing I could control the speed convinced me to give it a try. Glad I did, although my cranky knees had some nasty words for me about getting out of the little sled afterward.
Other options here include walking on the glacier, hiking to a traditional alpine hut for lunch, and dining in the formal restaurant. Not wanting to go inside on such a gorgeous day, we opted for an unfussy self-service lunch of traditional sausages and beer on the patio.
Menuhin Festival concerts
American-born violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin moved to Gstaad in 1957, and gave two concerts. That began a series of summer concerts that grew into the Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy, a mid-July to early September program emphasizing classical chamber music and symphonic works.
Over the decades, it’s grown into one of Switzerland’s largest classical music festivals and has presented numerous world premiers. On the night I went, the President of Switzerland attended.
World class hiking
In Switzerland, everyone hikes, or so it seems. While I aspired to the heights, my cranky knees demanded a less-demanding hike. A friend and I chose a gentle trail to Lake Lauenen, an alpine lake. We threaded meadows and woodlands, passed chalets and farms, enjoying hand-carved trailside critters and ogled distant waterfalls as we zigzagged up the mountain. Okay, I admit to humming that old camp song The Happy Wanderer as we hiked. Lunch: cheese and charcuterie at an alpine chalet overlooking the lake; heaven!
Cheese making 101
Keep an eye out for wandering cows when noodling up the country lane framed by pastures and meadows to Bergbeizli Site Alp. This dairy farm occupies a couple of traditional, connected chalets wedged into the mountainside. After visiting with the pigs, learning abut milking, watching the cheese maker at work, and viewing the cheese room, we nibbled on a selection of house-made cheeses. Note: Cash only.
Molkerei Cheese Grotto
Picture an underground bunker filled with roughly 3,000 wheels of cheese: That’s Molkerei Cheese Grotto. We descended into this chilly, cave for a guided tour including with a sampling of local cheeses, bread, and white wine. This delicious 75-minute adventure must be booked in advance. I later visited the Molkerei shop in downtown Gstaad to purchase some of the cheeses. Note cave access is via a very steep stairway; it’s wise to bring along a sweater or sweatshirt.
Another cheesy topic: fondue
With all this cheese available, of course, we had fondue in “Fondueland Gstaad.” It’s difficult to imagine that our experience in a rustic restaurant could have been any better. But then I learned about Gstaad’s rental fondue backpack. This handy, felted rucksack contains all the ingredients and equipment necessary to make either traditional or truffle fondue. With that on my back, next time I visit, I’ll head to one of the three, wooden, giant, outdoor fondue pots that serve as private tables or one of the on-mountain rustic huts.
Gstaad’s cow parade
Honestly, the cow parade was the highlight of the trip, exceeding my already high expectations.
From mid morning until late afternoon, farm families shepherd their cows from the upper meadows down to their winter hangouts. Every 30 to 60 minutes, another herd parades through town.
Now the farmers are rather proud of their gals, and most bovines are nattily attired with grand parade bell necklaces and colorful floral bonnets. It’s easy to figure out when a herd is approaching: A bell canto crescendo announces each new arrival.
The cows clop-clop along Gstaad’s cobblestoned Promenade, (main street), passing flower-trimmed chalets housing shops and sidewalk cafes. Occasionally, one of the gussied-up gals strays out of line, surprising herders and amusing diners by checking out the spread on the table. (Oh no! not Aunt Bessie!).
Gstaad’s annual cow parade isn’t only about cows. In between herds, parade watchers to-and-fro, browsing stalls where artisans display local crafts, farmers sell cheeses and charcuterie, and vendors sell food. All along the Promenade, a cappella choruses garbed in folkloric regional Saanenland attire perform, and musicians play alphorns and accordions.
On the day I visited, a garland-belted bull—not a job for the faint of heart—signaled that—wait for it—all the cows have come home.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Gstaad has six five-star hotels. I split my stay between the Park Gstaad and the Gstaad Palace.
- Appealing shops include Maison Lorenz Bach, a chic alpine fashion boutique in Gstaad, and Heimatwerk Swiss craft gallery in Saanen.
- Visiting in late summer eliminates any worries about navigating slippery conditions by car or on foot.
- One of the most enjoyable ways to travel to Gstaad is via the GoldenPass MOB Panoramic train operating between Interlaken and Montreux. Order a glass of wine, then sit back and watch the scenery unfold. Make it even more special by reserving a seat aboard the Belle Époque, a classic with wood paneling, upholstered seats, and gold-plated accents. The route is included in the Swiss Pass, but a seat reservation is required (surcharge may apply). The Swiss Pass not only covers train travel, but also buses and boats. It also covers or provides discounts on mountain excursions and includes admission to most museums. Opt for the first class Swiss Pass.
- Cobblestone streets, hiking trails, and country roads as well as many activities may not be suitable for those with mobility challenges. All visitors should bring sturdy footwear.
- Glacier 3000 is sited at 9,842 feet. Visitors with altitude issues should take precautions and/or preventives, and all should move slowly and be aware of any health issues.
- One side effect of the cow parade is cow poop; watch where you step when moving around town.
- If you’re considering a European ski vacation, while I haven’t experienced Gstaad in winter, I’m sure it’s wonderful. Here’s a look at Slide into 2018: 5 Luxe European Alpine Resorts
Disclosure: The author’s stay was hosted by Tourism Gstaad.
IF YOU GO
All photo credits: Hilary Nangle
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