From chocolates to cigarettes, everything in the Swiss village of Zermatt bears the mark of the Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn (4, 478m) is a handsome but forbidding mountain that has claimed the lives of many mountaineers who had the hubris to scale it. It hunkers into the blue sky above the pretty Swiss village of Zermatt, its unusual profile resembling a bulbous nose gone terribly wrong, its steep jagged sides beckoning and challenging the adventurous.
By the 1860s, the Golden Age of Mountaineering had been ushered in and, subsequently, many succeeded in scaling the Matterhorn, thanks to sheer brawn and chutzpah. An ornate fountain in Zermatt commemorates the exploits of a hardy Swiss gent who climbed the peak 350 times — the last when he was 90 years old! By the 1900s, winter tourism had come to stay.
Today, everything from chocolates, cigarettes and even condoms promote the Matterhorn! Four hundred and fifty mountaineers have lost their lives trying to scale it. And a special graveyard in the village, next to the church, honours those intrepid, restless souls.
In Zermatt, an amphitheatre of 38 four-thousand-metre peaks, topped with swirls of vanilla, seemed to press down on us as we gazed up at them… seductive in the challenge that they throw even to non-mountaineers. And Air Zermatt continues to rescue stranded climbers who underestimate the indomitable peak’s bad temper and ability to exact revenge on those who dare to conquer it.
Having grown in the mountain’s shadow, Zermatt has inherited its feisty spirit. There is adventure unlimited — skiing in both summer and winter (Europe’s highest ski area straddles the shoulder of the Matterhorn), hikes on glaciers, moonlit downhill runs, cross-country skiing… In summer, trekking in the Gorner Gorge, paragliding, helicopter tours and even mule treks are popular.
Celebrities retreat to Zermatt to shy away from media glare; their identity concealed behind sun glasses and the famed Swiss sense of secrecy and discretion. In this, there are soft diversions a-plenty: like twirling forks in a rich fondue in a wood-beamed mountain inn; tucking into raclette (a Swiss dish of melted cheese and potatoes) at a local sidewalk café; walk in the pine and shingle village where medieval dark wood chalets back up against green meadows and lush slopes. And beyond the flower-spangled pastures spread aromatic pine and larch forests threaded by hiking trails.
Zermatt’s narrow car-free streets wind around sunny cafes, restaurants and konditoreis and confiseries, wreathed in the fragrance of freshly baked bread and pastries. Le Petit Royal, where we stopped for a designer chocolate tasting foray, oozed Alpine charm. Its blond wood decor enhanced with charming bric-a-brac induced a sense of relaxation as we sipped hot chocolate (concocted with melted chocolate not powder) topped with sinful swirls of cream. One can have hot chocolate spiked with rum or a drink of plum schnapps, coffee and whipped cream and other ambrosial delights. Along with our hot chocolate, we also nibbled on slivers of white chocolate flavoured with saffron and pistachio and cream of cocoa beans; an orange-flavoured chocolate plus one stuffed with nougat, in the shape of — what else? — the Matterhorn, of course!
The next morning, we left behind the hamlet of 5,000 souls and trundled up to the Gornergrat (3,089m) in a cog-wheel train that puffed past quaint stations called Findelbach, Riffelalp, Riffelberg etc.
At Riffelalp, stands a plush resort of the same name (accessible by a private restored tram from the station), which commands stunning views of a ring of sharp mountains and boasts of having the highest outdoor swimming pool in the world!
At the summit station, passengers eagerly poured out of the train to take in the shimmering facets of the Monte Rosa, Gorner Glacier and 29 peaks of over 4,000 m, melting into the horizon. But within minutes, mist came sweeping in like a curtain drawn after an outstanding stage performance. In Switzerland, it’s all about altitude and the weather, and so we retreated to the plush Kulm Hotel on the summit of Gornergrat, the highest hotel in the Swiss Alps, for a coffee before heading back to Zermatt.
But it was at Sunnegga, another vantage point reached by a funicular, that we finally said goodbye to the Matterhorn which had haunted our dreams in Zermatt.