As the train climbed up towards the mountain going through the deepest cleft valley in Switzerland, my mind swirled with anticipation of finally seeing Zermatt. As a photographer, I have always dreamed to photograph the iconic Matterhorn, the mountain peak that claimed more than 500 lives since it was first ascended in 1865. The small mountain village of Zermatt has the reputation of being one of the most expensive and snobbish towns in Europe. I couldn’t wait to see if my high expectations about this place were justified.
Zermatt is a car-free village, so the best way to reach it is by train. Private cars can only drive as far as Täsch and the last 7 km must be travelled by train or by taxi. If you never experienced a car-free town, then Zermatt could be a bit of a surprise: all vehicles in Zermatt are battery driven and almost completely silent.
For me that was a bit scary because I could never hear them coming, so they always snuck up on me. Taxi drivers in Zermatt assume that pedestrians have eyes in the backs of their heads, which occasionally results in injuries. The village is relatively small, with only 5 or 6 streets, so you can walk almost anywhere. As you exit from the train platform area, there are electric cabs waiting in front of the station. Many of the hotels though have porters who will meet you at the station with a small electric car and will take you to the hotel.
See and Do
Skiing is most likely the main attraction in Zermatt. Besides the magnificent views and huge amount of skiable terrain to choose from, in Zermatt you can ski year-round. In fact, the plateau Rosa is the largest summer ski area of Europe. However, Zermatt is considered one of the most demanding skiing areas of the Alps.
Besides skiing, the area is a paradise for hiking, cycling or mountain biking although the latter hasn’t become too popular there yet. There are hundreds of trails and biking routes to choose from and mountain bikes may be carried on most of the ski lifts that are open in the summer.
But no matter what your reason for visiting Zermatt, the greatest attraction is a trip up to the Gornergrat at an altitude of 3,089 m. The Gornergrat is a rocky ridge of the Pennine Alps overlooking the Gorner Glacier, just south of Zermatt.
From the sunny viewing platform of the Gornergrat you can enjoy one of the best panoramas in the Swiss Alps. And what’s great is that this platform is accessible year-round. To get there you have to take the Gornergrat Bahn, Europe‘s highest open-air cog railway that has been running since 1898. The trip is an experience in itself. Every second of the 33 minutes ride is an unforgettable pleasure, with dazzling views of 29 mountain peaks, from the Matterhorn to the Monte Rosa.
After seeing the dreadful Matterhorn, most visitors of Zermatt feel compelled to visit the Mountaineers’ Cemetery, a sad reminder of the many lives lost in the mountains around Zermatt. The only exception is the grave of Peter and Peter Taugwalder (father and son), that commemorates the two climbers from the first ascent of the Matterhorn, who actually died of natural causes.
Located in the yard of St. Mauritius Church, the cemetery is comprised of 50 graves dating from the 19th century and early-20th century. Some of the tombstones reveal the causes of accidents (an avalanche, a rockfall). Most of these deaths occurred on the way down the mountain. It’s surprising to see graves of men and women from all over the world, not only Switzerland. One of the headstones is that of a 17-year old American from New York who died in 1975 on the Breithorn. His epitaph reads: “I chose to climb.” The stone is adorned by his red ice axe along with the US flag.
Visiting the cemetery is a sad a humbling experience that may help you understand this place a little better.
Across the street from the Mountaineers’ Cemetery, in the locals’ cemetery, there is another memorial dedicated to the accident victims in recent years.
Accommodations and Restaurants
Zermatt may be considered an expensive destination, but it’s probably not more expensive than any other place in Switzerland, or any other ski resorts around the world. More than half of Zermatt’s hotels are clustered around the main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, that extends south from the train station for about half a mile parallel to the River Vispa. There is another batch beyond the river and the some others in the outskirts of the town. Most of Zermatt’s hotels are family-run and are particularly clean and well appointed. They range from hostels, to budget, to mid range, to luxury chalets. You must be very unlucky to hit one of the less agreeable accommodations.
We have been the guests of Romantik Hotel Julen, one of the old, traditional hotels in Zermatt located across the river just off the main street. The hotel has great ambiance, with authentic Swiss furniture and two superb restaurants. They serve an excellent complimentary breakfast with a wide selection meats, pastries, breads, cheeses, jams and fruit.
Our room had a beautiful balcony with view of the Matterhorn, which was a big plus for me as I wanted to catch the first sunlight hitting the giant peak.
There are over 100 restaurants to choose from in Zermatt, in addition to the mountain restaurants, the bars and the nightclubs. These restaurants offer a wide range of food, from traditional Swiss, to Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Most of the restaurants in the village are located on the main street and almost every hotel has a restaurant that is open to the public.
We dined at a couple of them and experienced some of the best traditional Swiss specialties. like asparagus, raclette, fondue, cheeses, sausages, dried meats. One of them, Ross-Stall Restaurant, will always remain stuck in my mind for the very unique patio décor and a mouth-watering delicacy that I haven’t tried anywhere else: an amazing lamb loin, ternder and perfectly cooked in butter (just what I needed for my waistline!)
The other one, the tiny and wonderful Schaeferstube Restaurant located downstairs inside Hotel Julen, where we have been invited by Amadé Perrig, the former president of Zermatt Tourist Board. We were enchanted by the dishes we tried, mostly Swiss-style, with venison and lamb featured prominently. The lamb comes from the adjacent ranch, where the owner raises the lambs.
The canton of Valais is home to two very unique breeds of domestic animals: the Blackneck goats and the Blacknose sheep.
The Valais Blackneck goats (also called glacier goats) have a very distinctive coloring: black from the nose to behind the shoulder and white from there to the tail. Because they don’t produce much milk, back in the 60s the breeders stopped breeding them so they were almost extinct. But today, due to their growing popularity among the visitors of the area, these goats are once again produced in Switzerland.
The Valais Blacknose sheep are raised for meat and wool. Their characteristic are the black patches on their nose, eyes, ears, knees, hocks and feet. They have a very light, wooly coat that makes them look extremely cute and are good at grazing on steep, rocky slopes.
On our last day in Zermatt, just as we were ready to leave for the train station, I gazed one last time at the solitary peak that stands watch over the deep valley and asked myself: but for the iconic Matterhorn would Zermatt be just another beautiful mountain village like so many others in Switzerland? And as much as I loved this area, I have to say yes, it probably would.