Zermatt: magic, magnificence, and the Matterhorn
The Matterhorn, which is one of the most photographed mountains in the world, remains a peak filled with an aura of myth and mystery.
Zermatt is a mesmerising town at the foot of the Matterhorn (the same mountain that is printed on the packaging of my favourite Toblerone chocolate bars), and is famous for its snowy white landscapes straight out of a Christmas postcard, and the majestic ridges and peaks of the Pennine Alps. I wasn’t sure about the weather (temperatures ranging from -3 to -19-degree centigrade, not to mention the wind chill factor), but that didn’t dissuade me from planning my holiday to Switzerland’s most famous landmark.
I am not a fan of the cold weather, nor am I a particularly agile and athletic sporty type; rather, I’m someone who wouldn’t dream of touching a ski boot with a barge pole. But in the end, I am glad I gave in to the temptation of visiting this famous mountaineering and ski resort right in the middle of January (the coldest month in the year). It was a novel experience that reinforced my belief that travel is best enjoyed when done with an open mind.
Matterhorn: the soul of the town
Located in the Visp district of the canton of Valais in Switzerland, Zermatt is quite literally a 'little' town at the base of the Matterhorn peak with a population of just under 6000 people, and a quaint town centre with about three main streets. The town is encapsulated by the highest of the Pennine Alps including the Monte Rosa, the Dom, Liskamm, Weisshorn, and of course, the Matterhorn. A predominantly agricultural town until the mid-19th century, the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 (which ended tragically) had the town metamorphosing into a tourist hotspot, with tourism being the backbone of its economy today. The village was, in fact, first discovered during the expedition when English mountaineer and explorer Edward Whymper ascended the 4478m high peak with a troupe of 6 others (of whom only three survived). The mountain was the last of the peaks to be conquered, and was believed to be haunted until then by locals; it took Edward Whymper 8 attempts to finally succeed.
Since then, the Matterhorn, which is one of the most photographed mountains in the world, remains a peak filled with an aura of myth and mystery; its ascent is akin to an emblem or a badge of honour for seasoned climbers. The area surrounding the mountain, popularly known as the Matterhorn glacier, is a paradise with close to 360 km of pistes (tracks) and 54 mountain railways and lifts. It is Europe's biggest and highest skiing region, and a firm favourite with skiers, snowshoers, ice trekkers, and adventure junkies of all kinds.
Vast expanses of snow-clad plains, mammoth mountains, abstract yet beautiful patterns formed by flowing waters now frozen, and ice-crusted waterfalls heralded my entry into a winter wonderland and made up the fascinating view from out of my train window as I travelled to the town from Montreux. I marvelled at the picture-perfect chalets that seemed to huddle together as the train pulled into Zermatt’s railway station. However, I discovered that visitors driving to the town would need to park their cars in Tasch, a village 5 km away, from where they would need to take shuttle trains that operate every 20 minutes; I was interested to learn that the entire town of Zermatt is car-free.
Photograph courtesy Rashmi Gopal Rao
Scores of battery-operated taxis ferrying tourists and horse-drawn carriages greeted me as I made my way to my hotel, located just a stone’s throw from the railway station, even as I dodged skiers stomping around in their ski boots while lugging their ski poles and other paraphernalia. However, nothing could distract me from the pristine beauty all around. Sidewalks, gabled roofs, and outdoor furniture were all blanketed in a thick layer of powdery snow, and just a glance into the sky treated me to the stunning view of the snow-splashed conifers that adorned the mountains all around. Standing tall and resilient, they seemed to be mute witnesses to the forces of nature year after year, with some of them shedding their needles only to blossom again in spring. The ‘white-washed’ mountains glistened with sparkling snow as the sun played peek-a-boo from behind the peaks. The freezing sub-zero temperatures were the last thing on my mind.
Photograph courtesy Rashmi Gopal Rao
Gateway to the mountains
Apart from seasoned climbers and experienced skiers, Zermatt is an ideal base for anyone who loves the mountains. From rides on the world’s highest cableway in a gondola to cable car journeys, and even a helicopter ride, there are several options to savour the spectacular beauty of the mountains. While here, one thing that you certainly must do is take a ride on Europe’s highest altitude electric cogwheel railway that chugs its way up from Zermatt to Gornegrat, perched at a height of 3089 meters above sea level. An engineering marvel that is the highest open-air railway in Europe, the panoramic ride traverses through forests and snow-covered landscapes.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the “beyond the clouds” experience as you reach the viewing platform at the top. In spite of a bone-chilling wind that seemed to blow right through me, and despite the falling snow, the view from the top was simply breathtaking. Aptly situated at the top is a small chapel that offers solace and comfort; in addition, there is a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and a small visitor centre. On clear days, the Gornegrat peak is a vantage point to view 29 of the 484000-metre peaks of the Alps in Switzerland.
Interesting sights in town
Back in Zermatt, I decided to explore the picturesque town centre on foot, and my first stop was the Matterhorn Museum. The museum is insightful and a perfect way to learn about the history of the town from the 19th century. An ode to the days when there were no ski lifts or mountain railways—and how all that changed when the first English mountaineers arrived—is captured perfectly in the museum. The models of the houses, barns, churches, along with objects like tools, utensils, and machines showcases the lives of the people over the years. The museum chronicles the entire episode of the first ascent of the Matterhorn in detail, and there are several photographs and objects related to the episode, including the original hemp rope that was used during the climb. On display are also several objects pertaining to mountain climbing over the years including shoes, water bottles, and belts. There is also a section tracing the development of the hotel industry in the town.
Photograph courtesy Rashmi Gopal Rao
The Mountaineers’ cemetery in the centre of the town is a memorial dedicated to climbers who have lost their lives in pursuit of the Matterhorn; it is a tranquil yet sombre sight. A walk along the Kirchbrucke bridge close by treats you to some idyllic scenes. The turquoise blue waters of a creek, dancing over rocks and pebbles below, are particularly charming. On clear days, the tip of the Matterhorn—akin to a shark's fin towering over the town—is visible from this bridge.
Don’t forget to take a stroll around Hinterdorf; this is the oldest part of the town replete with timber houses, stables, and barns. As dusk and darkness fast approach, the twinkling lights of the shops, restaurants, and chalets take over the twilight, transforming the town into a colourful spectacle that is a complete contrast to all the white hues of the day. The only thing that seemed to remain unchanged was the imposing image of the mighty Matterhorn.