The area of the Alps where France, Switzerland, and Italy meet—specifically, the regions called Savoy, Valais, and the Val d'Aosta—were once part of the same cultural fabric, under the same ruler, the Duke of Savoy. Today they may speak different languages and carry different passports, but they still share one special animal, and her very special sport.
It's called cowfighting. No man, no cape, no death in the afternoon. But it's still serious business.
The Herens breed of cow is ideal for the Alpine environment. Unlike her huge lowland sisters who basically stand in stalls and produce milk by the gallon, the Herens is built for outdoor living and looking after herself, ideal for the rough terrain and harsh climate of the high-mountain pastures. In fact, she's built like a small bovine tank, with stubby legs and a curly face and often a very hairy udder. Sure she gives milk, but what she's really famous for is her incorrigible urge to lock horns with any other cow and push her into submission. To dominate, in a word. And the most dominant cow is the one best suited to lead the herd up to the high pastures in summer. Farmers and herders have a way of turning the most mundane activities into a sport, and voilà—cow-fighting tournaments now stud the calendar from April to October. The most dominant cow now can be worth as much as $10,000 if she wins the championship.
On a Sunday morning in Switzerland—it was April, but a late snowstorm was soaking the ground—I went to the Roman arena in Martigny to watch some 200 cows work it out between them. "The judges don't decide who the winner is," said one breeder. "The cows do." We heard intermittent bellowing. "No, they're not angry," he laughed. "They're happy. Because they're going to fight." These hefty little bruisers had cute names like Zizi and Cherie. Steam rose from their muscular flanks.
The farmers took it all very seriously, and so did the cows. They would enter the ring in groups according to their category (one was reserved for the big experienced mamas, another for young ladies entering their first competition), zero in on some cow they wanted to dominate, and just head for her. The farmers called out to the panting beasts over the clangor of the huge cowbells around their necks. The cows pushed like monster trucks, hooves slipping in the muddy ground.
As soon as one didn't feel like being pushed around anymore, she just surrendered and wandered away. It was essentially what you might see if cows could do sumo wrestling. Sometimes a cow would simply give up and trot out of the ring, but men with long sticks were ready to get her back into the fray. One enthusiastic cow started strong, but as soon as her opponent drew a little blood (not a common occurrence), she just gave up. "She can't stand pain," her owner shrugged philosophically, as he loaded her up in the trailer to head home.
It was cold, it was wet, it was real. The farmers weren't doing this for entertainment, they were doing it for themselves. The Alps, it was very heartening to see, aren't just for tourists.