In Austria, when the cows come home

In Austria – and all across the German-speaking northern flank of the Alps – it’s more than just an expression. Each autumn the cows really do come home, as the grazing season on the high alpine meadows comes to an end and the seasons prepare to turn. The Austrian autumn is glorious – long, warm and settled – but winter can come with brutal rapidity in the mountains. One day the weather can be teeshirt-and-sunglasses fine, the next bleak and snowy.

God bless the cattle

Each year the cows are brought down to the valley in a festive procession known as the Almabtrieb. Elaborate headdresses adorn the cows and the cowherds wear traditional lederhosen.

In Russbach near St Wolfgang in the Salzkammergut, the headdresses are richly-decorated works of folk art. When the procession reaches the village, the cows are put out to pasture while the serious business of eating, drinking and celebration begins. If the weather is as glorious as it was in 2012, it’s a fine opportunity to enjoy one of the last warm days of the year.

For young and old alike, it’s also a chance to wear traditional costume and show off traditional local skills.

There were ‘live’ displays of woodcarving, rug-weaving and broom-making

But the young dancers in lederhosen or dirndls were the main focus of attention. The sun shone all day, but the next day the heavens opened, it rained incessantly and summer suddenly seemed a distant memory. It wasn’t quite yet the start of winter, but a useful reminder that the Almabtrieb is a practical necessity as well as a much-loved seasonal ritual.

St Gilgen, Austria, 4 Jan: grown men with illuminated headdresses

In the Salzkammergut region of Austria the days before Three Kings are brightened by the tradition of Glöcklerlaufen, in which white-clad young men run through the lakeside villages carrying incredible (and heavy) wood and paper constructions on their heads, illuminated by candles and depicting anything from the sun to Salzburg Cathedral or the Silent Night Chapel. The origin of the tradition is pagan: the runners symbolise good spirits driving out the bad at the start of the year, their white clothing and illuminated headgear combining to drive away the darkness.

The village of Ebensee boasts the best-known Glöcklerlauf and the most elaborate designs, but the ritual has spread throughout the region, adding a much-needed splash of colour to the early January gloom.

In Ebensee in 2010 the participation of female Glöcklerinnen for the first time almost led to a boycott by the men. But in St Gilgen the run remains the preserve of young, single males.