Our last alpine stop had the potential to be the most photogenic. At the end of a 12-hour train ride on the Glacier Express from St. Moritz — on a gray and rainy and vista-blocked day — we arrived at the village of Zermatt.
Today, Zermatt is famous as a splendid and challenging ski resort. The resort claims to be Europe’s highest, with 360 km of ski runs.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the village was a remote agricultural settlement. Then came the alpine climbing craze, largely fueled by British adventurers. In 1865, Englishman Edward Whymper, with a team of six compatriots, attained the summit. Tragically, during the descent, four of the team, roped together, fell over 4,000 feet to their deaths. Whymper and two local guides survived. News of the team’s conquest of the Matterhorn, and the terrible price paid, made Zermatt famous; it also stimulated more alpine ascents and many deaths.
On our walk from the train station to our hotel, we passed a cemetery full of climbers who perished.
But our story is much cheerier!
We arrived in the village in the late afternoon. We found charming pedestrian streets lined with shops and full of fellow tourists. The clouds and mist hung above us, completely hiding any snowy peaks. But the weather report for the next day was a good one.
As we strolled around the village, we discovered a collection of streets framed by rustic wood buildings. Quite the contrast from the souvenir, Swiss watch, and ski-supply shopping streets. These are the kind of rural agricultural buildings that made up the pre-resort village; and many many other Swiss villages. Built of larch wood, which is dense, resinous and vermin-resistant, the barns and granaries rest on stone slabs and wood stilts — best at keeping the mice away. The larch wood naturally turns black over the years. During sunny winter days, the black walls absorb the sun’s energy, and heat the interiors.
Next morning, we awoke when the sky was just getting light. We squeezed onto the hotel balcony and looked hard left: There was the Matterhorn! Quietly regal. (It always makes me think of the Paramount Movies logo, but we learned that that mountain is a stylized rendition of Ben Lomond Mountain in Utah. I prefer to think it is the Matterhorn.)
We took the funicular train from the valley, up through forests and overlooking alpine hillsides, to the snowy top.
What could we do but savor the view of the famous mountain…
…and its family of peaks and glaciers.
High-altitude crows who cavorted, because this was just another day.
We stayed as long as we could, even though this was a windy and cold day. But we needed to catch a train on to Montreux.
Even as we walked back to our hotel and on the train station, the Matterhorn reigned over us.