Nine essential Swiss traditions to experience in Switzerland this autumn

Watch the cows come down from the mountains

Photo: Caroline Bishop

One truly Swiss sign that the long, hot summer is coming to an end is the sight of cows trooping through mountain villages on their way back to the valley farms for the winter.

Called the désalpe/alp descentit’s cause for celebration: after all, the cows have spent a successful summer living on the alpine pastures and producing flavour-rich milk which their herdsmen and women turn into delicious cheese.

On the day of the descent the cows are decorated with floral headdresses and large bells before parading through the village. Locals and visitors from miles around gather to watch them, scoff alpine cheese and drink Swiss wine. Bell-ringers, alphorn players and cheese-making demonstrations add to the entertainment.

There are cattle descents all over the Swiss Alps; one of the most popular is in Charmey in the Fribourg prealps.

Alternatively, head to Leukerbad for a sheep descent instead.

Enjoy the Bénichon in Bulle

Originally a thanksgiving festival, the Bénichon lost its religious connotations several centuries ago and is now a folk festival celebrating rural life and the end of the harvest. It is most associated with villages in the Fribourg region, most notably in the town of Bulle, which holds this year’s on the weekend of September 9th and 10th.

Centre to the party is eating: visitors are served a special Bénichon menu, which traditionally comprises cuchaule – a plaited bread served with mustard – before cabbage soup, then smoked ham and potatoes, rounded off with meringues and cream. Entertainment comprises folk music, alphorn playing and flag-throwing.

Celebrate the start of the wine harvest in Neuchâtel

Photo: Harvest Festival

For three days the city centre gets into the festival spirit. A series of parades feature kids in fancy dress, huge floats covered in elaborate floral decorations, Guggenmusik bands, and carts loaded with grape-growers’ tools and equipment. A fireworks display will be held over the lake on the Saturday night.

Try chestnut jam in Ticino

Chestnuts. Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

Chestnuts. Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

Chestnuts are an integral part of the cuisine in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Head to Ascona on October 7th for the annual Festa delle castagne (chestnut festival), where over 2,000kg of this humble foodstuff is available to be scoffed in a variety of formats: roasted on the fire, as jam or honey, as ice cream, in cake.

Other local food including polenta, mortadella cheese and Merlot wine is also on the menu. Music and a market add to the festivities.

Go truffle-hunting in Bonvillars

Photo: Bonvillars truffle market

Didn’t know truffles grew in Switzerland? Well they do around Bonvillars. Each autumn this town in the Jura Vaudois celebrates this gourmet foodstuff with a market bringing together truffle producers, chefs, connoisseurs and truffle-hunting dogs.

As well as enjoying the market and sampling truffle-based dishes in local restaurants (fondue with truffle, anyone?), visitors can find out more on organized truffle-hunting walks, demonstrations and cooking workshops. This year’s event is on October 29th.

Ride the carousel at Basel Herbstmesse

The oldest fair in Switzerland, the Herbstmesse dates back to 1471 when the mayor of Basel was granted the right to hold an autumn fair. Traditionally it’s held from exactly midday on the Saturday before October 30th to the following third Sunday evening (this year October 29th to November 13th).

Held in seven venues in the city, the fair comprises tons of fairground rides, hundreds of stalls selling artisan crafts and food, plus installations and street entertainment. Scoff flammküchen, raclette or bratwurst at Barfüsserplatz, ride the bumper cars in Münsterplatz or freak yourself out on the ghost train at Kaserne.

Scoff sausages at St Martin’s Fair

Photo: David Pursehouse

Dating back centuries, the Feast of St Martin in the Jura was traditionally a festival to celebrate the end of the harvest, where farming families would get together to eat a pig that was slaughtered to provide the makings of a huge meal.

These days pork dishes such as sauerkraut (pictured) remain the centre of the traditional St Martin’s menu, served in village restaurants across the Jura area from November 8th to 17th. On the following weekend – known as the Revira – a large artisan market takes place in Porrentruy.

See beetroots turned into incredible lanterns

Photo: Micha L Rieser/Wikimedia Commons

Much as many of us like to create a pumpkin lantern at Halloween, the town of Richterswil on lake Zurich has its own variation on the theme.

On the second Saturday in November (this year the 12th) the town stages an incredible lantern procession, where some 29,000kg of beets are hollowed out, illuminated by 50,000 candles and formed into impressive displays that are paraded through the village in an after-dark procession known as the Räbechilbi.

A tradition since the 1920s, the event also includes a market earlier in the day where you can pick up a bite to eat and enjoy musical entertainment. Some 20,000 spectators are expected this year.

Eat onion soup and drink Glühwein at 5am

Photo: Caroline Bishop

Before the Christmas markets kick off, head to Bern on the fourth Monday in November (this year, the 28th) for the Zibelemarit (onion market), when veg growers from the region come into town to sell 50 tons of onions and garlic presented in pretty braided strings.

Dating back to the 15th century, this festival has become an excuse to eat, drink and be merry – all with an onion theme. It starts at 5am, so get up early and join the locals by tucking into onion soup and onion tart, drinking Glühwein and throwing confetti at each other.

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