Zermatt is one of the Swiss destinations most well-known outside Switzerland, thanks mainly to its proximity to the Matterhorn, probably the most famous mountain in the country. Arriving from the wide Walliser valley at Visp, one reaches the end of the road at Täsch, from whence visitors are required to transfer to the train or to make their way onward under their own steam, sans car. I’ll write about the mountain destinations at Zermatt today, but the town itself is well worth visiting, with picturesque lanes in the old town bordered by traditional Walliser barns propped on short stilts, a wealth of shops and restaurants, and historic memorials to those who have lost their lives on the peaks and glaciers surrounding the town.
Upon arrival in the town, and dodging the numerous small electric taxi vehicles waiting to ferry guests to their hotel, the valley station of the Gornergrat railway is straight across the road from the main station. From there, you can check mountain-top conditions on one of the televised webcams, before heading onwards and upwards.
First winding between chalets and hotels, the train quickly leaves the picturesque, bustling town behind and reaches the forests lining the valley walls, and the famous views of the Matterhorn across the valley are quickly captured by the keener tourists. But there’s no hurry; the higher one travels, the better the views. The most famous images of the Matterhorn, used by tourist industries and galleries alike, are taken from the small Riffelsee lake, which affords spectacular reflections of the famous pointed peak.
From Riffelberg, the train journey up to the Gornergrat mountain hotel brings you to the level of the glaciers and a terrific view of the Gorner- and Grenzgletscher glaciers, with Monte Rosa, Breithorn and the twin peaks of Castor and Pollux dominating them in the background. From this level, it’s easy to see a real example of how the glaciers are retreating to leave deep, carved valleys exposed for the first time in millenia. Once you’ve had your fill of the views – if that’s possible! – you can enjoy the hospitality at the Kulm Hotel, which also offers overnight accommodation and occasional special packages.
My first visit to Zermatt in 2007 took in a trip to Schwarzsee, the lowest of the four main regular tourist destinations in the mountains above the town. Schwarzsee can be reached by cablecar from the southern end of the old town of Zermatt. The main draw to the small lake is its proximity to the Matterhorn itself; from the slopes above the cablecar station, the regular north easterly route to the summit begins and takes climbers along the ridge by way of the Swiss Alpine Club’s “Hörnlihütte” climbing hut. Not being a climber myself, I made do with the views from beheath the peak, enjoying a pleasant lunch at the mountain restaurant along with mountain bikers and other leisurely tourists, taking in the views back down towards the town and across to the nearby mass of the Furgggletscher glacier.
From Schwarzsee, more energetic visitors can make their way back towards the town by way of two main routes; via a steep and winding mountain trail directly to Hermettli, or via a longer but easier route to the picturesque hamlet of Zmutt. The less energetic can take the option of renting a trottinette for around Fr. 18; a kind off off-road scooter similar to the ones used by kids around many town centres, but adult-sized and fitted with hard-wearing pneumatic tyres and hand-operated cycle brakes.
The Rothorn, like its namesake in the Bernese Oberland, towers above its surroundings. From my first visit a week or so ago, I’d say that it’s one of the less well visited destinations in summer; the steep and unusually fast funicular, which runs entirely within a mountain tunnel, disgorges families at the Sunnegga station and visitors heading to the Rothorn leave the majority behind: those who choose to remain at the lower station to enjoy the terrific views, large restaurant terrace, and child-friendly play park, hiking paths and barbecue spots around the small Leissee lake.
Once on the cablecar above Sunnegga, the landscape changes somewhat and you notice immediately that you’re entering the higher mountain area; steep cliffs next to the cable car route and a increased number of marmot sightings indicating a less dense population of people. Even on the summer day when I visited, I could feel the cold air being blown across from the glaciers and it became easy to imagine how challenging being on an exposed mountain cliff face across the valley would be, even in such comparatively mild temperatures. With a change from the 6-seater modern gondola cabins to a more robust and sizeable cablecar at Blauherd, the final stage of the journey up to 3,103 metres above sea level brought me to the exposed lower peak of the Rothorn itself. (The Upper Rothorn being a hardy hike away, at 3,415m.)
A few hardy souls were out on the terrace of the mountain restaurant and barren mountain top, wrapped up against the wind and bedecked with snow-glare-beating sunglasses as they took their photos and sought a wind-less spot to enjoy the views. The massive cablecar station stands testament, alongside others on many of the far-off mountain-tops, to the draw of the peaks; many of which seem close enough to reach by a short stroll, but which are firmly within the realm of more dedicated alpinists.
This most recent visit has shown me again that the range of destinations and sights at Zermatt aren’t just limited to the old village and a wealth of points by which one can view the world-famous Matterhorn. (Even if, as a landscape photographer, it’s all but impossible to keep taking photos of the iconic mountain.) In fact, even the four main mountain destinations surrounding the village only provide a taster for the network of valleys, and I have yet to even visit the fourth: the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, which may be the most expensive destination of the four, but which is reputed to offer the most stunning views of all.
There are miles of hiking paths, opportunities to walk through glacial gorges, ride cablecars and course down the mountains by bike or trottinette, and the chance to stand on a mountain top and view three countries at your feet. Strap on a pair or hardy boots, pack a rucksack with warm clothes and a flask, and you can walk for hours on mountainsides surrounded by 29 of the highest peaks in Switzerland; including the tallest of them all, the Monte Rosa (or Dufourspitze), which tops out higher than 4,600 meters (15,200 feet). And all of this by setting out from one single destination, which in itself offers over a centenary of great mountain climbing history after the first ascent of the Matterhorn by a party led by Englishman Edward Whymper in 1865.