Ten quirky Swiss festivals

Switzerland has some unusual ways of celebrating.

Written by
Caroline Bishop

Whether it’s the coming of spring or the return of the cows from their summer holidays, Switzerland has found numerous excuses to burn a snowman, wrestle a herdsman or knock back some absinthe in the name of celebration. We explore ten of the country’s more unusual festivities.   

International Alphorn Festival

10. International Alphorn Festival

You can’t fail to encounter an alphorn on a meander through rural Switzerland. Resembling a cross between an over-sized pipe and a didgeridoo, it’s usually played by men in traditional dress during village festivals. Each year in the Valais town of Nendaz, 200 of them battle it out in an international alphorn festival (now rather unromantically called the Valais Pure Drink Festival) with 12,000 spectators turning up to enjoy the music, dancing and flag waving. You can even have a go at playing an alphorn yourself. This year’s takes place on 24-26 July.

Yodelling festivals

9. Yodelling festivals

Yodelling is such a deep-rooted tradition in Switzerland that the country recently submitted it to UNESCO for inclusion on the global heritage list. While many non-Swiss find this octave-jumping form of singing somewhat comical, here it’s a much respected talent that is celebrated in numerous festivals around the country. Taking place every three years, the next national yodelling festival isn’t until 2017, but you can join 30,000 spectators and 2,500 yodellers in Saas-Fee from 3 to 5 July this year for the 28th West Switzerland Yodelling Festival.
Bern onion market

8. Bern onion market

If you’re not a fan of onions, the Swiss capital is best avoided on the fourth Monday of November when Bern is overrun by some 60 tonnes of the eye-watering vegetable. A centuries-old tradition that has blossomed into a day-long festival, the Zibelemärit welcomes around 400 stalls selling artistically crafted strings of onions, garlic and other veg, plus ready-to-eat onion-based food. Arrive early (the market kicks off around 6am) and tuck into onion soup, onion tart and mulled wine for breakfast (yes, really), while chucking confetti at your fellow onion-eaters and enjoying the general day-off-work merriment. It’s certainly a novel way to start the week.

7. Sechseläuten

Raymond Briggs’ Snowman would have had an unhappy time had he visited Zurich on the third Monday in April. The Sechselauten spring festival attempts to accelerate the end of winter by setting fire to the Böögg, a giant snowman effigy. The quicker the poor chap explodes into flame, the sooner spring will come, so goes the theory. Prior to the snowman’s unhappy demise, members of Zurich’s 25 guilds parade through the city wearing traditional costumes. Watch out for the fishermen’s guild, who have a penchant for throwing dead fish into the crowd as they go.
Plant festival

6. Plant festival

The green-fingered among us will delight in Les Herbettes en Fête in Charmey in the Fribourg alps, this year on 6-7 June, which brings together plant growers, florists and artisan producers of plant-related products such as cosmetics and herbal remedies plus jams, cordials, chutneys and other foodstuffs. The festival also puts on workshops for kids and a number of guided foraging walks in the local area.
Ermatingen fish carnival

5. Ermatingen fish carnival

Tourism officials may have billed it the most boring village in Switzerland, but Ermatingen is a flurry of activity three weeks before Easter when it celebrates the Groppenfasnacht, a carnival bowing down to the local Gropp fish. The festival has its roots in medieval times, when each spring the village’s fishermen would celebrate the thawing of the local lake and the resumption of fishing. Not content with just one quirky event, Ermatingen last year attempted to throw off its boring reputation by organising Switzerland’s first stone-skimming championships. Er, they might want to rethink that one.

Hom Strom

4. Hom Strom

The Engadine village of Scuol only gets a couple of hours of sunlight in winter, as it’s surrounded by high peaks, and the lack of light obviously turns local residents bonkers, given their annual winter festival. On the first Saturday in February the village’s schoolkids get together to build the Hom Strom, a giant straw man. The effigy remains under close guard until 8pm (in previous years rival villages have tried to sabotage it) at which time it is set on fire, supposedly chasing away winter and welcoming spring.

Absinthe festival

3. Absinthe festival

The green fairy was born and still loiters in the Val-de-Travers, a valley in the Swiss Jura. You can meet her for yourself at the annual absinthe festival in Boveresse, this year on 20 June, which celebrates the extra-strong, once-clandestine aperitif.  Many of the region’s absinthe producers turn out to offer tastings, plus there’s absinthe-infused food and absinthe-related products for sale. If you leave feeling a little green, don’t blame us.
Cow festivals

2. Cow festivals

In Switzerland, cows like nothing better than a good knees-up. That’s the impression we get anyway, given the regularity of cow-related festivals here. In spring the combative Hérens cows in Nendaz and Leukerbad enjoy a good fight as they battle it out to be queen of the herd, with spectators cheering them on. Each autumn you can watch cows wearing their finest party outfits strut down from the alpine pastures after their summer holidays. Cheer them on while tucking into the fruits of their labours (namely, cheese) in the accompanying festival. Head to Charmey in late September to experience one of the biggest désalpes, which draws thousands. 
Alpine wrestling and herdsman festival

1. Alpine wrestling and herdsman festival

Just like their cows, Swiss herdsmen enjoy a good tussle. On 21 June this year the country’s alpine wrestlers will fight it out in the annual Schwingfeste in Schwarzsee, the country’s only licensed alpine wrestling competition. As ever, it’s a good excuse for a party, with around 4,000 visitors enjoying yodelling performances, local food and drink and some festival games – including the chance to test your strength with a spot of stone-pushing. As you do.
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