Trainspotting at 3,000 metres and Anyone for seconds? (Zermatt, Switzerland)

10 Feb

By Stuart Elliott
The first time I came to Zermatt I was a kid, dependent on my dad to dole out money for lift tickets. I did a lot ofwalking that visit, as well as eating cold sandwiches and drinking snow.


Yesterday we met a venerable mountain hut man, Leanda Taugwalder, who asked if we had been here before. After I proudly replied ‘Yes, fifty years ago’ he commented that a lot had changed. Well that depends on one’s perspective. For him yes; he no longer climbs the Matterhorn on a regular basis, instead he runs a unique and excellent hostelry, Blatten, in converted former cow sheds. For me however not really. ….


Mountains still dominate the village, crowned by the incomparably magnificent Matterhorn. The pine and larch forests adorn the mountain sides. The Gornergrat mountain railway still zig zags its way up the central mountains, at precisely 15.3 km/ hour, depositing skiers and walkers at strategically located stations for pistes, mountain hotels and restaurants. Hotel porters in peaked caps and uniform stand ready to greet the trains with their horse-drawn sleighs and heated blankets. Down in the old village the fifteenth century blackened timber houses with rock footings are still there. Multi-starred majestic hotels still exist with their lofty ceilinged piano and cocktail bars. No Marriots, Hyatts or Hiltons here if you please; we have the historic Zermatterhof, Mont Cervin and Park Hotel Beau Site.

The only changes I can see are that the horse drawn taxis have mostly transformed into e-taxis (except on Sundays when the horse drawn carriages return as if partaking in a paseo) and the ladies in furs who permanently adorned the best tables in the mountain restaurants have been replaced with…..Heaven forbid, could they now be skiing, instead of voluptuously lounging whilst preparing their youthful skin for a wrinkled middle age, sipping champagne and clutching elegantly at cigarette holders. 
Back to the present….


We are not installed at the Zermatterhof, but at the very comfortable Schlosshotel right next to the Gornergrat Bahnhoff (mountain railway), which makes it ideally located for mountain train spotting should that be your thing (and convenient for being first up the mountain in the morning). It is perfect, without being ostentatious, and so well run that you basically only see the staff when they deliver the coffee at breakfast and add logs to the open fire in the lounge. 

It is just as well the hotel is super comfortable as yesterday one of us slipped on a mountain path, whilst taking a day off from skiing, and damaged a shoulder. One of us is no longer skiing; but no matter the train spotting is excellent. Meanwhile the other one of us is up at 3000 meters skiing her heart out on a foot of fresh snow. Well, she needs the practice and meanwhile the train spotting keeps me busy.

Ever since I was last in Zermatt, about five years ago, I’ve been waxing lyrical about this gorgeous little mountain restaurant overlooking the Matterhorn, framed between snow covered pine trees, and with food to die for. Naturally on day one I took Sharon there. Never revisit good memories! Suffice it to say they brought us food we hadn’t ordered and then walked away when we complained. I am glad to report however that our subsequent inter-personal experiences with the local people have been what you would expect from the Swiss; courteous, efficient and helpful. 


In fact, at my new favourite place on the mountains around Zermatt, the Restaurant Al Bosco, not only was the food and Fendant wine mouth wateringly spectacular, but after I had just about licked the plate clean I was asked if I would care for seconds, gratis. You bet ya! 

The skiing has been a little frustrating, as the lifts over into Cervinia, Italy, have been closed due to wind – we think. Swiss lift operators are keen on issuing instructions but less forthcoming on why they are issuing them. So we have had to make do with only half of the advertised ski area. 
 The pistes were laid out, if that is the right way of putting it, more than fifty years ago. I know this because if you have been paying attention you will recall that things haven’t changed since my first visit. They are therefore not designed to facilitate skiing. They are just what they are. This contrasts with the modern French resorts, where pistes tend to be wide open, decidedly downhill, snow fields. Zermatt by contrast has many narrow trails and ridges linking mountains and requiring more advanced technique. There are also a number of areas requiring well toned upper body muscles, resulting in Sharon observing that the Swiss don’t seem to understand the laws of physics as the downhill runs at some point end up going uphill! She has a point; but these older resorts were established when putting skins on your skis and walking up was considered the norm. 
 Anyway, I have just spotted another train which reminds me I have a lunch appointment up at Riffelberg and need to catch the 11.24hrs to be propelled gracefully up the Gornergrat at 15.3 km an hour, which of course is the perfect speed to prepare the stomach for yet another gastronomic delight. Fortunately it wasn’t my drinking arm that was injured.

Upwards and onwards! 


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