Before we left on the trip all I knew about Zermatt was that it was a car-free zone and housed a famous mountain known as Matterhorn. I didn’t even know what Matterhorn meant or why it was famous. The no car zone is actually an electric car zone and is to prevent air pollution that could obscure the town's view of the Matterhorn.
However, after spending four days in Zermatt, I am a more educated and recharged naturalist. I now have a new travel philosophy that I feel is worth sharing and hence this post. I believe for some of our travel destinations where possible, we should go forth without researching too much and see what sparks our interest and embrace what unknown adventures lie ahead of us. But, once a place engulfs us in its beauty and enchantment, we could do our bit to learn more about its past and present and then spread the word and share our tips to encourage others to visit, enjoy, and self-discover their own secrets worth sharing with their larger communities.
Zermatt (a German word) is one such destination. The name of Zermatt (as well as that of the Matterhorn) derives from the word for ‘alpine meadows’, or matten (in German).
The town of Zermatt is surrounded by the high mountains of the Pennine Alps including Monte Rosa, Switzerland's highest peak at 4,634 m, and the Matterhorn (4,478 m). You can see people walking around with t-shirts reminding you of the height of Matterhorn. The other reminder of its popularity is the chocolate bars most people are holding or biting into. For chocolate lovers, you will remember this from your earliest swiss chocolate memories in the form of a Toblerone® bar.
It is a municipality in the German-speaking section of the canton of Valais in Switzerland. Most visitors get here by train, usually from either Visp or Brig, which are on the main Swiss rail network. From Zermatt, if you want you can cross the border over into Italy. Zermatt is famous as a mountaineering and ski resort in the Swiss Alps.
For mountain climbers, there are a choice of mountains to ascend, the most famous being Matterhorn, which was first climbed in 1865 and which facilitated tourism in this area. Much of the local economy is now based on tourism.
For skiers (the love of skiing is a gene all Swiss citizens are born with), the high-altitude results in consistent skiing continuously throughout the summer. Skiing in Zermatt is split up into four areas: Sunnegga, Gornergrat, Klein Matterhorn and Schwarzsee. We visited all four areas but not for skiing. We therefore initially found it strange and mysterious to see people walking around in ski boots, holding skis in 35C temperature.
A beautiful gray-white river flows through the town of Zermatt. This is the river of the valley: the Matter Vispa, which rises from the Gorner Glacier. There is a train right at the start of the town of Zermatt going up to the Gorner Glacier. Anyone who is visiting Zermatt for 24 hours or less gets the hint and takes the 29 minutes train ride up to Gornergrat, also known as the Gornergrat Bahn. The view on top is obviously spectacular but you may be surprised to learn there is a 5-star hotel in Gornergrat where a daily room rate is 600 CHF, and I am referencing off-peak rates.
As mentioned, the village was "discovered" when British mountaineers climbed up Matterhorn. But it’s also a very popular destination for hikers. In fact, Zermatt is a starting point for hikes into the mountains, including the Haute Route that leads to Chamonix in France. We did a hike from Gornergrat down to the next train stop (Riffelberg). It was not dangerous but definitely a bit on the steep side for us city folks. It’s fun hiking down with other families and noticing all the little kids who jump down the hike like the little mountain goats they are..fearless and much lighter in body too. On day two we did another hike from Sunnega. There is a hike known as the ‘five lakes hike’; you can do all five or any of the five or some combination in-between. I did the hike to the most popular of the five lakes from Blauherd known as Stellissee. It’s one of the easiest and prettiest hikes I have been on.
Cable cars and chair lifts carry skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. One reason I decided to write this blog is because of the unexpected and almost spiritual experience we had taking the cable car to Europe’s highest mountain station; Klein Matterhorn at 3,883 m. This ride newly opened in December 2019 and is known as the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. One has two take cable car rides from Zermatt to get here. The first takes you up on the 4-seater gondola car up to Trockner. The second cable car from Trockner to Klein Matterhorn is the one that left me mesmerized and awestruck. This cable car is not something to be taken lightly. It carries 25 people at a time, versus the normal ones seen all around Switzerland that carry only four and can swing quite a bit if it gets even a little windy. The 25-seater also known as the crystal ride offers extensive views in all directions going up. At one point I felt like I am on my way up (truly a vertical ride) to Mars or some other planet. The peak lift drops you off at a 360° viewing platform from where the views are of paradise, hence the name, “Glacier Paradise.” Although visiting this place one time should be on every Swiss tourist’s list, I would say every Swiss resident would benefit from going to Paradise more than once. Why not? If you can.
Finally, we come back to the beginning of where I started this blog, going to Zermatt but knowing nothing about the place or the jewel of Zermatt aka Matterhorn. By now you have learned some interesting facts about Zermatt, enough hopefully to make you want to visit. Let’s then turn our attention to Zermatt’s pièce de résistance: Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is a mountain of the Alps, straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy. It is a large, near-symmetric pyramidal peak and one of the highest summits in the Alps and Europe. It is one of the most popular mountains to climb even though it is estimated that over 500 climbers have died trying to ascend it, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.
Maybe because of its sheer beauty, maybe because it can be viewed towering over Zermatt as soon as you arrive in it, maybe because it’s become popular over time, the general opinion is that this “peak in the meadows”, which is what Matterhorn roughly translates into is the most well-known mountain in that area. The Matterhorn has been part of the Swiss Federal Inventory of Natural Monuments since 1983. It is truly a natural gem worth experiencing in person. I hope you will.