My mother always complained when we lived in Tacoma, Washington that my father took a million photographs of Mt. Rainier. Having just returned from Zermatt I finally can understand: I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the Matterhorn. It is so spectacular! And it changes throughout the day. In the morning the sun lights up its eastern face. During the day clouds hang on the peak and snow blows off the top in white puffs. In the evening when the sky is turning pink the mountain is a looming silhouette.
We flew into Zurich on the first Saturday of “ski week,” along with approximately 50% of London coming for the British half-term holidays. From Zurich it’s a two hour train ride to Visp, where we had six minutes to change trains, and then one more hour to Zermatt. The second train traverses a long valley with great views of the surrounding mountains through extra large windows. The internet had told us about the views, and about the strange system where some seats are reserved but most are not, and your ticket allows you to hop any train on the specified day. We weren’t really prepared for the chaos. At each station there is a mad scramble to get on the train and find seats, lest you be left standing, and in Visp we were pulled along in a running stream of ski tourists. But we found seats beside an American family who were on Hour 26 of their epic journey from Connecticut, which for some reason involved flying to Milan with a stop in London.
Here are some observations on Zermatt and the skiing there, with my personal pros and cons for each.
First, the town of Zermatt is car-free. On the plus side, that means it’s clean, quiet and safe to walk around — which it wouldn’t be with cars, given that most of the roads have no sidewalks. On the negative side, it’s no fun walking in ski boots! If you don’t want to walk then your options are either to catch the bus that cruises back and forth along the river at the bottom of the valley, or to hire an electric taxi. The boxy taxis have six passenger seats with racks for skis on the back. They can be called for pickups at your hotel or chalet, although most hotels seem to have their own. And they are extortionate, as you might expect given the lack of competition. On balance I really like that Zermatt is car free — but if, as a town, you want to eliminate private motorized transport it seems reasonable to invest in better public options.
Second, the pistes are mostly reached by two or even three chairlifts, trams, trains or gondolas, taken in succession. For instance, you can start off at the Sunnega station by taking a funicular up through a tunnel. That leads you, at Sunnega, to a chairlift / gondola combo which takes you to Blauherd. At Blauherd you can take another 6 person chair up to the Rothorn, one of the peaks at the resort.
This system of multiple stages and slopes disbursed across multiple peaks means that the lifts at the bottom can be extremely crowded. On the plus side, the runs are very long — the map can’t really show them to scale — and once you’re up to the top you can find yourself alone on the piste, and (as when we were skiing down the backside of Rothorn) look out at a mountain range and see no sign of human activity. The snow was also better the higher up we went. On the negative side, there are no chutes or snake lines to organize the crowds at the bottom, and so hundreds of people holding skis and poles push and jostle to get to the gondolas. That was true also at the second stage lifts. It seemed as if the Swiss had assumed that the mountain would attract about one third of the number of people who actually showed up, and no adjustments had been made for control of larger crowds.
Third, the social scene is hopping. We didn’t really touch it, but we did take advantage of the nice basket chairs and blankets on some of the mountain-side restaurant decks. On the plus side, the weather was super — above freezing, sunny and calm — every day but one, and we could sit outside and enjoy the views, and for many people that was obviously a big draw. We saw plenty of Young People enjoying open-air shisha and Aperol spritzes. On the negative side, the food was basic and the prices were at Disneyland levels. Most of our dinners we cooked at home in our apartment, and most of our lunches we brought with us. But we also had some dinners and a lunch with friends from Barcelona, including some fondue one night at a restaurant up on the mountain.
And then on the way back to Barcelona we had an afternoon in Zurich to wander. We ate lunch at Haus Hiltl, which claims to be the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world (operating since 1898) and now is so heavily patronized by beautiful people that it must have the highest charisma-to-calorie ratio in the world. It was delicious!
After lunch we walked through the old town, including into the Grossmünster — to which we were drawn by its connection to the Affair of the Sausages* — and then to Fraumünster. The artist Marc Chagall created a series of stained-glass windows for Fraumünster, and although he completed them at age 90 and apparently didn’t work often in the medium, windows suit his style extremely well. We also walked through and played in the Lindenhof square, which has over-sized chess boards on the ground and great views out over the river and the old town. And finally, as we were walking back to the train station to depart, we saw some graffiti that seemed to be mocking my disdain for all things poodle.
So in summary: it was a great week. The town and the mountains were beautiful, the skiing was mostly terrific — everyone’s skills improved dramatically — and we all had lots of fun together and with our friends from Barcelona.
The Affair of the Sausages is the name for some events that sparked the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland in 1522. It started when Grossmünster’s Pastor Zwingli showed up at a party during Lent where his printer-friend Christoph was serving sausages to a band of working men. Meat eating was forbidden during Lent, but Christoph claimed that the working men were, umm, “exhausted from putting out the new edition of The Epistles of Saint Paul,” and so, I guess, in dire need of sausage. In any case, Christoph was arrested for his little sausage-fest (!), so Pastor Z clapped back with his sermon “Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods,” which he naturally based on the works of Martin Luther and Luther’s concept of individual rule. Ka-Pow! Pastor Z then, unfortunately, contracted the Black Plague — but survived! Divine judgment — uncertain! His Bishop focused more on the infection part of the story and said “no more preaching Reformation doctrine in my haus.” Too late though, because Pastor Z was already becoming a revered figure in Swiss Protestantism and soon published his own sixty-seven theses challenging Church of Rome doctrine.