A lake steamer was recently camouflaged to look like one. Lifesize bovine models stand placidly on crowded urban streets from Zurich to Geneva. No Swiss traditional parade worth its salt is complete without its cud-chewing, udder-swinging, bell-ringing contingent. Entire boutiques are devoted to them. A vividly purple variety is the symbol of a bestselling chocolate brand. Their fights draw thousands of spectators. The cow is not officially holy in Switzerland, even though a national tourist office poster shows one walking on water. But it is sacred.
Cow power as a Swiss ethnic symbol has never been stronger, rather surprising in a country in which today only a tiny portion of the national gross product comes from agriculture, but whose urban citizens perhaps still dream Walter Mitty-like of being really simple herders in the Alpine uplands even as they grapple with the morning traffic jams on their way to the bank.
Last year more than a hundred variants of cow sculpture decorated the streets of Zurich and when the show was over, some were taken to Sion to bring good luck to the headquarters of the city's bid for the Olympic games. While this is alleged to occur automatically to recompense anyone who has had the misfortune to step into a cowpat, the magic failed to work in the Valais.
Nonetheless, without its cows and their insistent bellringing, the Swiss agricultural landscape could hardly look or sound the same. Not everyone is enchanted by the sound though. In the early years of the century the young Winston Churchill was staying with his friend Lord Cassel in the latter's superb 25-room Victorian villa on the Riederfurka overlooking the Aletsch glacier in the Valais. Churchill was trying to write a book but his concentration was seriously disturbed by the never-ending bells. Complaints were addressed to the herders, who politely obliged by muffling them with grass and paper.
Another sound, the plaintive Ranz des Vaches or Kureihen herders' cow call, has over 500 years been elevated into virtually an alternative Swiss national anthem, sometimes derided as "the Cattleman's Marseillaise", but guaranteed to produce patriotic tears at any Helvetian folk gathering like the recent Festival of the Winegrowers (as well as having been appropriated in various forms by many classical music composers).
The most pampered cows in Switzerland are the sturdy beasts of the Herens breed, stars of the annual fights in canton Valais known as Combat des...