Zermatt’s world-famous reputation as a top ski resort began badly. From the late 1880s, driven by the spirit of adventure, mountain-conquering British lords and gentlemen felt the desire to discover the unknown − the untamed Alpine world − and pit their strength and skills against it. The 4 478-metre Matterhorn, which dominated the skyline of the town, was a tempting challenge.
British illustrator, climber and explorer Edward Whymper and six mountaineers attempted the treacherous climb in 1865. Undaunted by the Heath Robinson-style equipment, the team constituted the first climbers to conquer the Matterhorn (on July 14). Whymper said he decided to ‘besiege the mountain until one of them capitulated’.
It was not Whymper who the mountain would claim, but four of his team-mates. They died on the descent when a rope linking four of them together broke. The Matterhorn and Zermatt were firmly and notoriously on the map.
In an interactive museum in town, the sheared hemp rope is displayed prominently among the equipment and utensils of the climbers. Now, every summer season, two to three thousand people climb the peak in a ‘free for all’, but as Willy Hofstetter, president of the Alpine Museum, says, ‘This is not the Eiffel Tower. There have been over 400 casualties on the mountain since 1865.’
Today, Zermatt is one of the most sought-after ski resorts in the world with the highest concentration of mountains and glacial Alps. The journey there is the epitome of Swiss efficiency – a direct flight from Cape Town on Edelweiss Air deposits you in one of the most highly rated airports in the world: Zürich. The
26 cantons of Switzerland are connected by a spider’s web of rail − the best way to travel through the country.
Until the village of Visp, an hour out of Zermatt, the double-decker train barely makes a noise as it bullets through the countryside. Neither do the passengers. Our carriage is as quiet as a Buddhist mountain retreat and we soon find out why. We were chastised by a passenger while we chatted animatedly as she pointed to the Zono del Silenzi sign. A carriage designated as a ‘quiet zone’.
The journey became silent, but meditative and relaxing. The mountains have a smattering of snow, like frosted cakes, and the higher you go, the more generous the decoration. There are quaint villages, lakes and a river that flows in steps next to the train, alternating bubbling brooks and frozen perimeters − the snow trapped in sunless crevices. A waterfall is frozen in a cascade as if stopped in mid-thought and the snow is peppered with deer and rabbit prints. The train passes through the fairy-tale village of St Nicklaus where evidence of Santa Claus’s real origin is seen on rooftops, in gardens and in the streets.
If you’re not lured by the silenzi zones of the Swiss trains, fly direct by helicopter to Zermatt. There’s no point taking a car as cars are banned in the town, which is described as ‘a democracy of pedestrians enjoying equal rights’.
Here, no Roll Royces prance around, and no compact car has to feel ashamed to be itself – they all stay down in the valley. Your transport choice is an electric bus or taxi, or a carriage drawn by one of the six large, shaggy horses that pay their way taking tourists to and from the station.
Visitors might come to Zermatt in summer for a variety of reasons, but winter is for the serious skiers, most of them local. They want to take advantage of the 365 days of guaranteed snow on the glacier and are spoilt for choice on the 350 kilometres of prepared pistes, the longest 27 kilometres. Zermatt alone is a skiing Shangri-la but, for those wanting a little cross-culture, a gondola will take you to Italy to ski. Those who enjoy more adrenalin can try the off-piste areas marked in yellow on the slopes. Apart from sledding, snowshoeing, heliskiing (for the adrenalin junkies) and cross-country, there’s more than enough to fill your time in Zermatt.
There are four points from which to ski, all magnificent and accessible by gondola, train or funicular − Gornergrat, Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Rothorn and Schwarzsee. From these peaks, Zermatt is Lilliputian in the valley below, even though it’s 1 800 metres above sea level. Matterhorn Glacier Paradise has Europe’s highest aerial cableway, which takes a rather gut-lurching trip up a cliff face to the viewing platform, ice palace and Europe’s highest restaurant at 3 883 metres.
You’re left breathless, literally and figuratively, at this altitude – a third of the height that a Boeing flies and beyond the maximum height you would be able to fly without oxygen. It’s also bitterly cold.
If spending a night in an extraordinary ice hotel is on your bucket list, you won’t get much better than the igloo just below Gornergrat, at
2 727 metres. You reach it by taking the 25-minute journey on the Gornergrat train. It was the first electric-rack railway (built in 1898) and the highest cog-wheel railway in the open air (no tunnels to Gornergrat, at 3 089 metres). The train is quaint and it’s hard to believe that, as it steeply climbs the 1 500 metres, all that’s holding you from the pull of gravity and a slippery descent is a series of flimsy looking ratchets.
From there you can ski down to the Iglu-Dorf Hotel and Ice bar, which sleeps up to 40 guests. The hotel is built from scratch each year using a rather ingenious method of blowing up different-sized balloons and then piling snow on top of them. Once the snow freezes, the balloons are popped and you have the perfect igloo. It takes 15 people six weeks to build it and it’s themed, rather incongruously, along the Wild West.
The ice sculptures, painstakingly created by guest artists from America, are so lifelike that you feel you can almost touch the smoke being blown from the pipe of the Indian chief. It’s bone-chillingly cold, though, and even the Everest-proof sleeping bags and fur didn’t sell it for me.
Great for thawing out is the super-hot spa bath at the hotel. It’s built into the snow at 3 000 feet and, as I sat there with a glass of bubbly, the Matterhorn felt close enough to touch. It’s hard to believe you can overheat in an exterior temperature of -8°C, but the water is so hot that you have to leap out every now and then and roll about in the snow, like a husky cooling off after a long mush. Minus husky fur though, you’re driven back rapidly to the pool to defrost. This alternating torture, they say, is very good for your circulation. A couple of glasses of Glühwein and a Swiss fondue round off the igloo experience and it’s a short and warming walk or ski (in the dark) to the station and down the mountain to Zermatt.
The following day brought a blizzard, freezing temperatures and
27 centimetres of snow. Caught skiing in it, our party decided to seek shelter from the white-out in a tiny wooden restaurant high on the mountain. Bitterly cold and disorientated, I stood at the entrance to the kitchen and asked, ‘Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?’ – in very slow, precise, dumbed-down English, referring to the complicated piste map and the blizzard outside. In perfectly clipped English, our host replied, ‘In my kitchen…’
Maybe the owners were bored in the storm, but they could not have been more hospitable or entertaining with their repartee. They dried our clothes in front of the furnace, kept us supplied with soup, cheese, apfelstrudel and hot chocolate, and introduced us to ‘their’ deer feeding from the troughs in the heavy snow.
A break in the snowstorm saw us scurrying back to Zermatt, which encapsulates CEO of Swiss Tourism Jürg Schmid’s description of the country: ‘Switzerland is a powerful brand. We have the most beautiful mountains in the world… 48 peaks towering more than 4 000 metres is hard to compete with. The Swiss have made it their mission to capitalise on this by concentrating on class instead of mass’.
Class is played out perfectly at the four-star Schweizerhof Hotel in a combination of discrete luxury and service. The Schweizerhof was started by Alexander Seiler – a son of a poor Valais peasant family, but a visionary thinker. He was an enterprising entrepreneur and, undaunted, in 1855 started what is now one of Switzerland’s greatest hotel dynasties.
Why Zermatt? ‘The first sight of the Matterhorn sent shivers up and down my spine,’ he says.
Previously, there were neither hotels nor restaurants and visitors were treated with wariness and outright hostility. The Seiler family’s burning enthusiasm for the hotel business has continued into the fourth generation. Apart from the Schweizerhof, Seiler hotels in Zermatt include the five-star Hotel Mont Cervin Palace and the four-star Hotel Monte Rosa.
Mountain cuisine is usually considered nothing more than a fuel stop, but the 56 mountain restaurants around Zermatt − many of them former farmhouses − serve magnificent food. A personal favourite tasted at one of the restaurants on the slopes was a bowl of hay soup with vodka, which tastes infinitely better than it sounds. It is here where you take a break, lounging on the large terraces soaking up the sun and letting the Matterhorn magic wash over you.
On your return to the hotel, muscles aching from an exhilarating day’s skiing, the sempervivum (wellness centre) offers power showers, a spa bath, a light-flooded relaxation area and an indoor pool. Going au naturel in the mixed sempervivum is standard and one needs to suppress any South African prudishness and go with the bubbles…
Zermatt is not like St Moritz or Gstaad – a fashionista or royalist playground. Visitors deliberately avoid superficial glamour and celebrities blend in with the other skiers. In fact, we’re told that the Queen of Sweden waiting for the funicular to the Matterhorn with a pair of skis over her shoulder is just as unlikely to cause a sensation as Sir Richard Branson sitting next to you. It’s a breathtaking Alpine world where you relax and recharge your batteries.
In Zermatt they say that everything dramatic, heavy-handed or pompous is out. ‘Casual elegance is in. And those who turn up over- or under-dressed are usually the first to realise it.’