Thursday, January 8, 2015

Zermatt: The Ultimate Swiss Experience

Imagine Switzerland in January…

Montreux—the jewel of the Swiss Riviera, where I was staying in the Vaud—was enjoying a very civilized winter: just a mild dusting of powder snow to excite the senses. But I was seriously craving snow. You know the kind: the deep soft stuff that an adventurous stuffed cat could get joyfully lost in.
So, in search of serious snow, breathtaking scenery and a resort atmosphere, I packed up and headed southeast to the alpine village of Zermatt in the Valais. This resort town nestles in the shadow of the majestic Matterhorn in some of the most stunning scenery on this planet and my stuffings were itching to taste its bounty. Probably best known as a centre for skiing and mountaineering, Zermatt’s surroundings are truly breathtaking any season. But the high season—as in scintillating “get a high”—is winter. And I was right in the middle of it. This comes at a price; accommodation in Zermatt is among the most expensive in Switzerland.

View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt
But, if you’re a cool cat like me, there are ways … and there are lots of options. All the inns, hotels and guesthouses in Zermatt are locally owned: these range from cozy guesthouses and hostels to large full service hotels with five star ratings. All, of course, feature the signature Swiss hospitality and excellent service known worldwide.

Depending on your budget, you can visit Zermatt in true style and stay in one of the five-star hotels and get picked up at the train station by a horse and carriage. Some of Zermatt’s luxury hotels include Mont Cervin, Monte Rosa, Hotel Schweizerhof, and Hotel Nicoletta (now Le Petit Cervin), all located near the village center and on or near Bahnhofstrasse, the main street. The Monte Rosa is considered the “grande dame” of Zermatt hotels and is where Edward Whymper stayed when he became the first person to climb the Matterhorn.

You can rent a suite in one of the chalet-style condos, like I did, and be greeted by a friendly local who will not only show you to your cozy avant-garde suite but give you the low-down on the cool things that locals do in Zermatt. If you don’t mind something a little less posh, you can get very reasonable hostel accommodation right in the heart of Zermatt and on the surrounding foothills through Hostel Europe.

Ski hut on the Matterhorn
If you’re a skier or mountaineer, you can also rent a “hut” on the outskirts of town or up the hill toward the Matterhorn. There’s nothing quite like skiing into and out of your place. The Riffelalp is a luxury alpine hotel up the mountain from Zermatt that you can get to via the Gornergrat Railway cog rail. The Kulm and the Romantica are two other chalet-style mountain hotels accessible by cog-wheel railway from Zermatt. Overlooking the Gornergletscher on the Gornergrat, with its two domed towers—one is a working observatory—the Kulm provides a distinctive “summit experience” at 3100 m.

The Trip to Zermatt
Zermatt in the evening

It was a three-hour drive from Montreux along excellent freeways and snow-lined mountain roads. Looking for adventure, I drove my ToulouseMobile past the wine-growing towns of Martigny, Sion and Sierre to Visp, where I turned onto a narrow road that wound its ascent out of the Zermatt/Visp Valley past mountain villages and eventually to Täsche, where I parked my mobile. A major snow dump had just occurred here and I’d been informed that Zermatt might be closed. Fortunately for me, the train up to Zermatt—a car-free village—had just begun again. And I was about to head into a paradise of freshly fallen snow!

Ski run at the foot of the Matterhorn
Zermatt nestles in the foothills of the Matterhorn and surrounding mountain range, among which are the highest of Switzerland (Monte Rosa at 4634 m). To visit or stay in this Matterhorn village, you need to take a train from Brig, Visp, or Täsche. The 7-km shuttle train ride of the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway runs every 20 minutes from Täsche to Zermatt. I parked the ToulouseMobile in the Matterhorn Terminal Täsche, and enjoyed a relaxing 12 minute ride on the shuttle train to the Bahnhofplatz in the heart of Zermatt.
Living, Playing & Eating in Zermatt

Alps near the Matterhorn
From the train station it’s at most a twenty minute walk along the snow-packed Bahnhofstrasse, the main pedestrian street that runs the length of the resort town along the banks of the Vispa River, to any accommodation in the town. 

Lined with festive shops, restaurants and cafés, I strolled Bahnhofstrasse, experiencing the best of Switzerland. I checked out the classy souvenir shops (there is hardly anything “tacky” in Switzerland—even its souvenirs), featuring Swiss Army knives, watches, and clothes (I purchased a pair of Swiss cow socks for a friend); gourmet chocolatiers like Laderach and Fuchs; patisseries; shops selling fashionable outerwear, sweaters and ski apparel; and others selling top quality ski and boarding equipment; and, of course, bistros and cafés featuring savory Swiss food from fresh oysters, chocolate fondants, mushroom and ham crepes or exquisite open-face sandwiches and hearty soups to the best filet mignon or truffle ravioli. 

The family run Le Mazot is one of Zermatt’s less expensive and most welcoming small eateries. Located in the village centre near the river, it specializes in lamb fed on pastures under the Matterhorn and grilled on an open wood fire.
Toulouse in Heaven: Petit Royal

My favorite lunch places included the Hörnli Bäckerei-Konditorei and the newly established Le Pont Royal across the street. I just had to return to the Hörnli several times to sample their savory crepes and excellent café crèmes. Es war ausgezeichnet! Wunderbar!

They also feature excellent desserts but the attractive window display of Le Pont Royal drew me in and next thing I knew I was savoring an exquisite marzipan genache almond torte with vanilla custard. Topped off with a gourmet hot chocolate, it made paradise into heaven.

During high season (in winter), Zermatt welcomes nearly 20,000 visitors who live and play amid its 5 or 6 pedestrian streets and lanes and, of course, its spectacular mountains. There are virtually no internal combustion vehicles except the occasional outside delivery and specialist services (most service vehicles run on batteries). This helps against air and noise pollution.

Le Petit Royal Confiserie in Zermatt
As I wandered down Bahnhofstrasse, poking into narrow Medieval-like alleyways that led to adventure, I pondered how I could find myself in utter tranquility within a few steps from the main street bustle. You can sit on a hotel balcony and listen to the songbirds as you watch the sun set on one of the most striking mountains in the western world. 

In Zermatt you can wake up in a four or five-star room or a canvas tent to the sound of birds, church bells, and children's laughter. The name "Zermatt" does, after all mean “to the meadow”; it’s a contraction of the local dialect words "zer", which means "to", and "matta", which means "field" or "meadow".

During the summer, roads and hiking trails take you up to a number of year-round restaurants. In the winter you can ski to them and enjoy a Swiss beer and raclette or roesti. I stopped in several of them on my cable car tour up to the Matterhorn via Furi, Schwartzee and Trockener Steg.  

Intrepid off-piste skiers shared my car into snow heaven then bid me adieu to negotiate the steep back-country slopes of deep powder in search of untracked snow. On my way down just past Furi, I was alerted by the huge litter of skis laid out like match sticks in the snow: a lively après ski crowd was partying at Zum See, celebrating a good day of powder hounding.

The Majesty of the Matterhorn

The ultimate Matterhorn
Straddling the Swiss and Italian border, the Matterhorn attains a height of 4,478 m. Though not Switzerland’s highest mountain (it’s actually Monte Rosa in the same range), its splendid pyramid-shape has earned the Matterhorn a place as one of Switzerland’s most enduring symbols. It was one of the last alpine mountains to be climbed to the top, by British explorers in 1865. That first expedition unfortunately ended with tragedy; only 3 of the 7 climbers survived the descent. They are buried in Zermatt along with others who lost their lives climbing the challenging mountain.

Anyway you look at it, the Matterhorn's majesty is worth beholding any season and any time, from bright sun to the shrouding mists of sunset. The best views can be found in the cozy posh resort town of Zermatt.

Sunset over the Matterhorn 
I'll be back ... with my skis! I'm the COOL Travel Cat, after all!