If you think of Zermatt, you can’t help but think of the Matterhorn, the pride of Switzerland and the big pointy mountain on the side of Toberlones.
Zermatt is pretty much the original Alpine resort, whose first inhabitants opened a hotel in 1838, and despite massive expansion in the ’60s, it has managed to hold on to much of the feel of a small Alpine village with wooden chalets and back alleys abounding in the town. While things can get a little pricey, the place is a destination for both the discerning backpacker and the all-year après-ski. In fact, the resort is more vibrant after the end of the ski season, as the pistes open up their potential to climbing, hiking and mountain biking, with some of the most scenic views in the whole of Switzerland.
Into the valley
Zermatt is surrounded by mountains, so the best way to reach the town is by train and, conveniently enough, the main station takes up one side of the town square. From there, you can get an electric cab or a horse-drawn carriage to your destination, but that’s probably no more than a few hundred yards away. The fact that cars are banned from the little town (the nearest parking is at Visp or Tasch) ensures that the valley isn’t clouded by fog, and their absence is hardly something that you miss. The Alpine Museum pays particular attention to Edward Whymper, the first English climber to reach the summit of the Matterhorn in 1865, while St Peter’s – ‘the English church’ – commemorates the number of Britons who have died while climbing in the valley. The town has dozens of hotels, many of which offer great services at affordabe prices, and over 100 restaurants, which isn’t bad for a town of 5500 residents. However, if you’re on a tight budget, you might want to head to the supermarket instead, just yards from the station.
If you want to get a better view of the valley, and start bellowing the hills are alive”, then the Gornergrat is a great place to start. The Gornergratbahn is the highest cog wheel railway in Europe and offers a direct service from the town, past the Rifflalp, to the bottom of a ridge extending 300m upwards to Stockhorn at 3407m. The peak is a great place to start mountain biking, with a number of marked biking trails, as well as free access to all the trails around the peak. On top of that the railway is an especially handy way to get your bike up the hill, without the hard slog. From here you can make tracks over the Gorner glacier towards the Monte Rosa hut, courtesy of guided tours that start at the railway. Alternatively, you could head further up the valley to the Furi cable car and take the lift up to Trockener Steg, allowing you to trek over the ridge and onto the Italian side where the food is a little more affordable.
If you’re tired of being tied to the ground, albeit on a big hill, then you can take to the skies via paragliding. The sport has you packing a parachute up a lift and then sprinting for the edge of a cliff before catching the thermals over the town. There really is no better way to see the valley than to get into the air. The Zermatt paragliding school has been running for 20 years and offers flights everyday of the year, depending on the weather. For beginners, tandem flights are available for around 120 CHF (about £50). You can head to the skies with an instructor, who will guide you to a safe landing.
At 4478m, the Matterhorn isn’t even the largest mountain in Switzerland, but has a legendary reputation for difficulty, defying a successful descent until the 1930s. To tackle the summit you’ll need physical fitness, experience and professional equipment, as well as coughing up around 1100 CHF (around £450) to hire guides. That said, for experienced climbers, the climb doesn’t deserve its historic reputation as being the North Pole in the heart of the Alps. However, there are many more manageable treks around the valley: along the ridges around the valley, accessible from the lift stations at Scwarzsee and Furi, and Breitorn, a peak reachable without much preparation.
Bonus points for: Yodelling
Loses marks for: Pricey
Check out: www.zermatt.ch
– Michael Simon