/ On The Road
On The Road — By Marianne on January 24, 2010 at 10:27 am

Swiss Winter Vacation without Skis

The Glacier Express rolled across sparkling carpets of snow. The train swished across viaducts and popped in and out of tunnels. I leaned back in my seat. Around each hairpin turn of the track, another scene from a child’s picture book greeted me. Chiselled mountain peaks, glinting tongues of glaciers and dazzling white sheets of skiing pistes crawled past. Weathered-brown Alpine chalets graced the valleys in a picturesque fasion only the Swiss are capable of. With an average speed of 35 km per hour, the Glacier Express is the world’s slowest express train. This narrow-gauge railway winds its way across two hundred and ninety-one bridges and through ninety-one tunnels on its way from St Moritz via Brig and Visp to Zermatt. I lost count halfway, but trusted the Swiss rail infomation.

An anorak-clad crowd hopped on at Visp station. A cacophony of voices filled the train. They deposited their skis and snowboards in the racks and looked out of the window through wrap-around sunglasses. When I looked down, I saw a variety of footwear. Skiers wore rigid boots, colourful, but not meant for walking. Non-skiers wore hiking boots, drab browns and greys, but comfortable. Skiers outnumbered non-skiers. That’s why I was pleased to see other hiking boot wearers and I did not feel the odd one out.

Matterhorn Loomed like a Giant's Tooth

The Glacier Express branched off to the south. The train clawed up to Zermatt, reverting to rack and pinion at least six times during the forty-kilometer stretch. Just before the train pulled into Zermatt station, mighty Matterhorn loomed up in the background like a giant’s tooth.

Zermatt train station buzzed with activity. All visitors arrived by train, because the village is car-free. I zigzagged through the crowd to the Tourist Information Office and picked a hotel from their list. I ambled through Bahnhofstrasse, a street brimming with tourists. Top-star hotels lurked behind rustic chalet facades. Shops selling luxurious ski outfits, wood carvings, talking murmeltier and hand-crafted cuckoo clocks lined the street. Early winter darkness wrapped the chalets and shops in deep shadows. The last sunrays darted across the mountains and made Matterhorn shine like a piece of glowing coal.

The next morning, Bahnhofstrasse bustled with ski-carrying people on their way to the pistes. I ducked into a side street, right behind the church, shuffled through fresh snow and found Hinterdorf, a cluster of twisting alleys and dark-wooden chalets. Many of them had the date of the building carved under the eaves. I was amazed to see that some of them dated back to the 18th century and were still in top condition. Chalets interspersed with traditional barns. These barns were easy to spot because they stood on raised stone discs to prevent mice and other creepy crawlies from feasting on the harvest.

Matterhorn Shines like a Piece of Glowing Coal

Next to the church was the Alpine Museum with a permanent exhibition about Zermatt’s mountaineering history and the challenges the climbers faced. British climbers discovered Zermatt in the 1820s and came in droves. The museum also showed glimpses of village life: life-size replicas of chalets, barns and the first hotel. I found the display of climbing equipment very interesting but also worrying. These axes, ropes and boots looked very primitive compared to today’s standards. Many of these items were retrieved after the climbers who had used them perished.

The first successful ascent of the Matterhorn was in 1865, led by the Englishman Edward Wymper. In all fairness, it should be added that his guides, who were locals, prepared the climb, led the way and were the real heroes. The expedition ended in a tragedy. On the way back, the rope snapped, sending four climbers to a sudden death. Rumour had it that Wymper cut the rope to save himself and a fellow climber, but this has never been confirmed. The original rope is on display in a glass case and does not look very sturdy. No wonder it snapped.

The Rope that Snapped

Donald Stephen Williams' Grave

Matterhorn Village

The Climbers Cemetery behind the church tells a sorrowful tale; fifty graves of mountaineers who succumbed. The earliest is a gravestone commemorating the fall of the first climbers in 1865. The most recent grave is of Donald Stephen Williams who died on Breithorn in 1975, aged 17. The inscriptions on the stones are thought-provoking and I wondered what made those people climb and did one wrong step kill them or did anything else go wrong?

The afternoon stretched ahead of me. The sun shone out of a gentian-blue sky. The perfect weather for a trip to Switzerland’s highest shopping centre and I hopped on a train to Gornergrat Mountain. The Gornergratbahn clings to the mountainside like a baby monkey to its mother. When the track became too steep for a conventional locomotive, the train switched to rack-and-cogwheel drive. In forty-five minutes, the train climbed to the Monte Rosa massif, an ice-field look-out station 3,131 m (10,272 ft) above sea level.

I watched the skiers on Monte Rose Massif against the backdrop of the Matterhorn


I jumped off onto a field of snow that sparkled as if someone had been up all night polishing it. The Matterhorn seemed to be so close that I thought I could touch it. Its dramatic peak stood isolated and in sharp contrast to the deep cerulean sky. I photographed the play of sunlight and the wind-sculpted snowdrifts on the mountainside. Each minute the colours changed. I could have watched this spectacle for ages. Instead, I went to the Belvedere terrace of Kulm Hotel, sipped tea laced with rum, basked in the sun and inhaled the crisp winter air.

Adjacent to the hotel was the astronomical observation station. High altitude and dry air are favourable conditions for meteorological observations. The laboratory container unit at the far end of the terrace was used for measurements of solar neutrons. The astronomical observatories were housed in two domed towers of the Kulm Hotel. Invigorated by the hot drink, I wandered through the shopping centre. A Swiss knife, a watch, a ceramic cow, what souvenir shall I buy? I decided on a pair of Victorinox scissors.

Raclette served with boiled potatoes and gherkin

On the way down, the sun sank behind the mountains, setting them aflame with a deep orange glow. Back in Zermatt, I wandered through Bahnhofstrasse and went straight to Café Du Pont. The menu of the day featured raclette. I cut into the soft cheese, pricked a sticky lump on my fork, slipped it into my mouth and let its creamy smoothness melt on my tongue.

Zermatt is both a summer and winter destination and hardly ever off season. January, end of June and September are relatively quiet months. Winter high season is February and March. Summer high season is July and August. Nearly everything closes from May to mid-June and from October to mid-November.

The Glacier Express winds its way in seven hours from St Moritz or Davos to Zermatt via Chur, Andermatt and Brig, one train in winter and four trains in summer. Most trains have glass-roofed observation cars and a narrated trip commentary. Swiss Rail has a variety of rail passes. If you plan more rail trips in Switzerland, these passes are practical and good value for money.

Especially in summer this train is very popular. To avoid the crowd, take ordinary trains along the Glacier Express route. No panoramic windows but the same scenery. The bonus is that in some trains windows can be opened (better photos) whereas the Glacier Express is air-conditioned and windows never open.

Because Zermatt is a car-free village, cars have to be left at the car parks in Täsch, the neighbouring village. From here shuttle trains run every 20 mins. If you have booked accommodation the electric hotel taxi will whisk you off to your hotel. If you haven’t prebooked, the Tourist Information next to the station has a list of hotels and guesthouses. It is also a good place to find out weather conditions in the mountains. In one corner is a TV screen showing live pictures of the local summits.

Rye bread is Zermatt’s specialty. It has a very hard crust, suited only for strong teeth, as it is one hundred and fifty years old. Strictly speaking this is true. Its main ingredient is sour dough. Each new batch contains a portion of the previous batch. In the old days communal bread baking in the village took place every two months. The first few weeks the bread was still relatively fresh, but when it had been stored for five or more weeks the bread had became as hard as a rock. The last few slices had to be cut with an axe.
Get your Rye bread from Bakery Biner at Bahnofplatz 4.

Zermatt is full of luxurious hotels, character filled guesthouses and holiday chalets. The Tourist Office lists over one hundred hotels and guesthouses and advises to pre-book in the high season. All hotels have gear storage room with boot warmers.

Hotel Weisshorn
Aufdenblatten, Zermatt
Weisshorn is the name of one of the mountain peaks near Zermatt and the name of the hotel. This pension-style hotel can make vacation in Zermatt more affordable. Instead of expensive fondue dinners, guests can take their meals in Café Du Pont next door. Follow Bahnhofstrasse as far as the church, cross (a very small) bridge and opposite is Hotel Weisshorn, a seven-minute walk. Small, pine-panelled rooms some with a balcony but no view

Hotel Mont Cervin
Bahnhofstrasse 31, Zermatt
Old world charm right in the centre of the village. Rooms on the north side do not include a view of Matterhorn. Rents out ski apparel, which can be left in the ski room. Swimming pool located at the spa facilities, with hot tubs and outdoor warm water

Hotel Post
Bahnhoffstrasse 41, Zermatt
Bang in the middle of Zermatt, king-sized beds and awesome rain showerheads. Refurbished in 2004, but some of the old charm was lost.

Hotel Monte Rosa
Bahnhofstrasse 80, Zermatt
Steeped in history, Wymper, Churchill, Roosevelt stayed here. In the heart of Zermatt, right on the main street and surrounded by shops, restaurants and cafés. Old fashioned charming Swiss atmosphere.

Hotel Weishorn

Hotel Monte Rosa

Cafe Du Pont


Zermatt has the Matterhorn as Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Agra has the Taj Mahal. Not only does it have the Matterhorn, the village is also surrounded by 36 other mountains.
Skiers meander down along 250 km (156 miles) of marked trails, past icy blue glaciers and ivory white snow. Zermatt counts 71 lifts to transport skiers. Half the trails are suited for intermediates, of the rest is 30% for skiing experts and 20% for beginners.
Non-skiers find lots of things to do – visit Matterhorn Museum, glide through the countryside on a dogsled tour, take the Gornergrat cog train to 3,089-metre Gornergrat to see 29 majestic mountain peaks, go shopping in Bahnhofstrasse or join the skaters at the skating rink behind the church.

Bahnhofstrasse Late Afternoon

Switzerland is not a member of European Union and does not have the euro. The Swiss currency is the Swiss Franc (CHF). 100 CHF is 96 USD or 76 EURO.

WHAT: Matterhorn Museum
WHERE: Kirchplatz, Zermatt
OPENING HOURS: daily 14.00 – 18.00, closed from November to mid-December.
ADMISSION: CHF 10 (€6 or US$10)

WHAT Gornergratbahn to Monte Rosa masief
WHERE: entrance to the train directly opposite the train station
sit on the right hand side for the best views of Matterhorn.

WHAT: Kulm Hotel, Gornergrat
WHERE: 3000m above sea level

WHAT: Swiss Travel Tickets
WHERE: Get all information about Swiss trains online

photo credits; personal collection

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