In a Neutral Country, It's the Cows Who Do the Fighting
What shoes should I wear to cow fighting?
When my husband and I moved to Switzerland over a year ago, I never dreamed this was a question I would ask myself. But, here I was, closet doors flung open, wondering what to wear to trek up the mountains and watch cows wrestle one another.
In the mountains, Heren cows, a stout, dark brown breed, naturally duel in their Alpine pastures to establish herd hierarchy. Since the 1920s, farmers in Switzerland's Valais region have held organized matches between these cows, putting the herds in a ring to replicate this natural behavior.
Beginning each spring, regional cow fights take place throughout the area, pitting local cows against one another in matches based on weight and age. In the fall, the local winners head to the finals to compete for the title La Reine des Reines or Queen of the Queens.
One Saturday in late June we decided this was something we just couldn't miss. So I pulled on black riding boots and dashed out the door before the sun was even up. Two hours later, after a train and twisting-turning bus ride we climbed into a gondola. As we rose up Veysonnaz mountain, I heard the clanging of brass cowbells under the cold, light rain that pinged against the windows.
We disembarked, marvelled at the snow still on the ground, grumbled about the unseasonably cold weather we've had and made our way to a ring of booths selling coffee, croissants, beer and local wine. The pungent, damp-sock smell of hot raclette, an Alpine cheese melted over potatoes, hung in the air as the workers hurried to ready lunch and a DJ played techno-polka style tunes. We waited under a tent with Swiss families -- all clad in hiking boots and puffer coats -- snacking, chatting and trying to stay warm.
The ever-louder jangling of cowbells signalled the fighting would soon start and we hurried to get a good spot along the fence that formed the competition ring. The bigger matches take place in an arena with seats, but for this smaller local fight a make-shift ring had been created on a semi-flat area of the mountain.
The cows, marked with large white numbers scrawled on their sides, paraded, single-file into the ring with their owners. Heaving, snorting, slobbering, a few hundred cows stood along the inside edge of the fence, waiting to be unleashed.
Once all the cows had entered and were situated, the farmers released them from the rope lead and moved out of the way. Some seemingly bored cows lingered on the outskirts of the fray, tails swooshing back and forth and liters of drool dripping from their broad lips. Others pawed the ground and pressed their heads into the mud as if they were goading themselves for the brawl. And, the more aggressive chose an opponent, ran forward, locked horns and butted heads.
This isn't a fight-to-the-finish gladiator-esque clash. Once the cows have butted heads, they push each other until one concedes by walking away. A cow that is defeated three times is eliminated and the competition goes on until all but one cow has been ejected.
We stood along the fence, snapped photos and, suddenly experts in bovine battles, commentated Marv-Albert style. When a cow would get within horn-grabbing distance, we'd jump back and then resume our spot along the fence. Occasionally, a cow -- fed up with the melee or disoriented -- would bust through the fence and wander away.
After 45 minutes shivering in the rain, we followed suit, conceded defeat and walked away from the match. We warmed up inside a tent with a glass of wine while the battle continued for over an hour more. With a winner declared, the locals crowded under the tents and warmed up with sausage, sauerkraut, raclette and wine. A trio of men broke out accordions and played. The rain wasn't dampening the party atmosphere, but I wondered how much more festive it must be at the other fights when the sun kept everyone warm and outside. While the regional events are convivial parties, the finals is an absolute carnival with national TV crews, thousands of spectators, veterinarians monitoring the competition to ensure there are no Lance-Armstrong-like shenanigans and big-money prizes for the champions.
I considered staying for the second match, scheduled to begin in the early evening, but my popsicle toes demanded I surrender. As we climbed back in the gondola and headed down the mountain, I thought -- thicker socks and more cowbell.
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