Think about Switzerland and what springs to mind? Chocolate. Heidi. Chocolate. Fondue. Chocolate. The Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn is an iconic image of Switzerland, and it was also something my husband always wanted to see. Does one need a more compelling reason to visit Switzerland? So we decided to spend our Christmas in the village of Zermatt and see the mountain.
Thanks to the invariably efficient Swiss Rail system it was remarkably easy to reach this alpine village. From the airport at Zurich you can board a train to almost anywhere in the country. To reach Zermatt, some four hours distant, required only 2 changes of train, one in Brig and the other in Visp. At Visp, we boarded the cog railway that would take us up to the village via a cute bright red train only two cars long.
Zermatt may be one of first eco conscious towns in all of Switzerland. No cars or busses are allowed in the village. So once you disembark from the train you will either walk to your hotel or take an electric cart or horse drawn sleigh to your hotel. Without vehicles the first thing that will strike you is the quiet.
We don’t ski. We don’t snowboard. We don’t climb mountains or even hike. So why did we fly several thousand miles to this place? Because it is there!
Our first view of the mountain would not come until the next morning. It was snowing gently when we arrived, the cloud cover obscuring any possible view. As the early sun rays glanced thorugh our hotel windows I went to see the view. With a less than gentle yell of “YOU have to see this!” I startled my husband awake. He quickly forgave my shriek when he, too, caught a glimpse of the peak of the Matterhorn, turned golden in the early morning sun. All at one I knew what all the fuss was about, it was a glorious vista, one certainly worth all the postcards printed on its behalf.
For the rest of our holiday the Matterhorn was always with us, peaking through the clouds, visible off in the distance like a gentle giant watching over us. For a week we walked the village, scuffling though the snow, taking photos, sipping hot chocolate and eating fondue. One day we took the train to the Gornergrat, a substantially higher peak a short train ride from the village.
One particularly snowy afternoon we spent in the Matterhorn Museum, this was a small and very well organized little museum devoted entirely to the climbing expeditions of the mountain. An Englishman, Edward Whymper was the first to scale the 14,865 peak in 1865, and, appropriately, the English were the first to “discover” the village as a holiday destination. Zermatt can count Winston Churchill among its celebrity visitors, although he would climb nearby Mt. Rosa, as it was cheaper to do so. American visitors included Theodore Roosevelt, who would climb the Matterhorn while on his honeymoon.
And we went to the movies. Zermatt is such a small town that there is no room for a multiplex theatre as we know it. However, the village does boast a combination theatre/art gallery/ winebar creating a very unique multi experience where during intermission you can gaze on local art while sipping a glass of wine. This was also the first time I had ever experienced a film with more than one language on the subtitles (French, Italian and German for an English movie).
We were wise to spend our days walking because we were spending a goodly amount of time eating. A favorite spot became Elsie’s a legend in the village. What appears to be a small hut becomes surprisingly capacious once inside. This is a bright lively spot with an excellent menu of both food and spirits. Everyone, it would seem, comes to Elsie’s, and they bring their dogs, who seem to like it, too. We also found places to indulge in fondue and raclette and even gave in to “dining” at the McDonalds in the train station for light lunches.
We took our holiday in the week leading up to Christmas and it was especially nice to see it celebrated in such a low key fashion. There were enough decorations, and carols being played in the shops, but little of the frantic activity we found so common at home.
On Christmas eve we were serenaded by the church bells in the village that began with a single church pealing the call to midnight mass. That bell was quickly joined by so many others that the valley was soon a cacophony of joyous, if chaotic sounds.
Christmas we spent quietly with some friends from back home who had come to Switzerland to be an au pair for year. So, we walked and photographed the village with them until it was time to take the train back down the mountain.
All too soon our week would come to an end. So each year as Christmas draws close I cannot help but be reminded of one of the best holidays I ever spent, tucked into the tiny village of Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn.