Zermatt, retro wonder

Clara Ellie
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The story

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Rosy-fingered dawn creeps over the Zermatt Valley. The first rays of the rising sun make tentative attempts to pierce through the clouds which cloak the peak of the Matterhorn. Its iconic peak is so sharp it looks like something out of a drawing, a child’s impression of a mountain. Across the way, the twin peaks of Castor and Pollux go head-to-head 4000 metres above sea level. A few experienced mountaineers have already embarked upon the ascension, passing via the Monte Rosa massif.

An impressive phalanx of chalets on stilts stand out from the mountain side. These immense larch-wood refuges have been blackened by over 300 years of storms, but are still standing as solid as ever as they await the first skiers. Down below, in the village, the unmistakeable aroma of pear bread calls out to you from Fuchs’ bakery. But the urge to get started is too strong to resist: it’s time to head up the Little Matterhorn and glide down those pristine slopes of fresh, untouched powder.

A day’s skiing sees you bouncing between two worlds, from Swiss opulence to Italian discretion. Only the sacred peak of the Theodul Pass seems capable of reconciling the tranquil Alpine retreat of Cervinia with Zermatt and its host of high-altitude gastronomic restaurants. Over on the Italian side lie the dizzying slopes and glacial silence of Valtournenche. When midday rolls around, head back over to the Swiss side and join the tired and ravenous crowd lunching at Vrony’s, a hundred-year-old cabin perched at over 2000 metres above sea level. The scent of rösti fresh from the oven mixes with the caramel aromas of the warm apple doughnuts, filling your nostrils and sharpening your appetite as soon as you walk in the door.

Down in the village, the car-free streets are filled with nothing but fresh air and silence. On either side of the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Zermatt shows off its different sides: in places it’s the village that time forgot, complete with open sleighs, while in others it feels like a buzzing mountain city. Stroll through the maze of boutiques, their dark wood façades adorned with red and pink flowers. Switzerland’s master watchmakers need no introduction, and Zermatt is the home of Haute Horlogerie Schindler, their window display sparkling like fresh snow. And yet, just around the corner from this hustle and bustle, the Hinterdorf belongs to a completely different era, still filled with barns, granaries and old stables. Bearing witness to the time when this was just an Alpine farming village, the dark wooden raccards and gädinis sit side-by-side with timeless flagstone cottages.

A sudden noise breaks through the calm, the crunch and creak of wheels on rails: the Gornergrat is pulling into the station. This is the king of rack railways, the highest in Europe. Its route crosses vertigo-inducing bridges and passes through galleries hewn into the rock. The scenery is a stunning procession of larch and pines, gorges, natural amphitheatres and sparkling, emerald-green lakes.

At the end of the line, and the peak of the mountain, the train pulls into the 3000m-high Gornergrat station. Lined up on the horizon, majestic and implacable, are the undisputed masters of Zermatt: the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and the Dom in the Mischabel massif. This awe-inspiring natural wall has helped Zermatt to retain its air of mystery and seclusion, watching peacefully over the village described by Mark Twain as a “hidden wonder.”

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When to go?

Zermatt is undoubtedly at its best in the winter. The Matterhorn is bathed in pink light and a thick layer of snow cloaks the village, where time seems to stand still. In the summer, these white expanses disappear to reveal green pastures and vivid blue mountain lakes. Hikers and mountain bikers flock to make the most of this awe-inspiring Alpine landscape, peopled with chamois, buzzards and marmots.

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How to get there?

As a car-free village, Zermatt is not directly accessible by road. Cars can be left at the Täsch terminal, three miles outside the village. From this car park, a shuttle service in the form of an old mountain tram takes visitors up to the village. If you prefer to avoid public transport, there are always taxis and chauffeured vehicles waiting in front of the station.

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Experiences

2018 03 27

Secret summits

Up above the well-worn pistes, take to the air for some fresh, untouched powder on one of Zermatt’s 38 peaks, accessible only by helicopter. Our guides are expert skiers and passionate mountaineers, leading the way through the pristine snow to show you the resort’s most beautiful (and most secret) slopes.

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Slalom by moonlight

Get your strength up in a cosy mountain-top bar, as the sun sets spectacularly over the snowy Matterhorn. Then glide down the Rothorn, following the ski tracks of our expert guide as you cruise into the village by moonlight.

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Gornergrat, head in the stars

As night falls, join up with our expert Alpine star-gazer for a nocturnal expedition to the Gornergrat observatory. He’ll teach you how to navigate with a star map and read the secrets of Greek mythology in the firmament.

Our address book

Chez Heini

A musical dinner

Set in a traditional Alpine chalet, Chez Heini specialises in delicious lamb dishes: millefeuille of lamb with grilled vegetables is a particular favourite. But it’s at 10:30pm that this quirky little restaurant really comes to life. Dan Daniell is the manager here, but he’s also a professional musician. When he picks up his guitar and takes to the stage, the atmosphere suddenly becomes electric.

Wiestistrasse 45, 3920 Zermatt

Capri

Italy on the slopes

The surprising scent of the Mediterranean comes wafting out of the kitchens at Capri, staffed by a brigade of chefs brought in directly from the Amalfi Coast. Up on the fourth floor of Le Petit Cervin, this Michelin-starred restaurant showcases the enduring excellence of Italian cuisine. Head chef Salvatore Elefante directs the intricate ballet of dishes and flavours, offering a taste of the dolce vita. Special mention goes to the prawn taglioni and the candele agli agrumi.

Bahnhofstrasse 31, 3920 Zermatt

Chez Vrony

Savoyard style

Owned and run by the Julen family for more than a century, this high-altitude guinguette is watched over by the eternal Matterhorn. Inside this wooden cabin, with its “mountain chic” décor, sink into a sofa with an animal hide or else soak up some sun out on the terrace. The cuisine is elegant and creative, offering fresh takes on a selection of Savoyard classics.

Findeln, 3920 Zermatt

Iglu Dorf

An icy maze

A unique opportunity to pretend you’re an Eskimo, in a cosy igloo. It’s impossible to enter this maze of icy tunnels without feeling a sense of childlike wonder. Better still, round every corner there’s a chance to taste local produce, check out visiting art installations or watch one-off shows with friends and family.

Rotenboden, Gornergrat Skigebiet, 3920 Zermatt

Vernissage Lounge Bar

Step back in time

Right in the centre of the village, this cultural hub is home to an art gallery, a cinema and a lounge bar with a chic, sophisticated décor. The perfect place to get away from it all with craft cocktails served in plush surroundings, framed by red velvet curtains and chandeliers.

Hofmattstrasse 4, 3920 Zermatt

Hennu Stall

Chic cabin

As the sun begins to set, all slopes on Furi seem to lead to this little cabin, half-buried in the snow. Home of some legendary après-ski sessions, Hennu Stall has live bands and excellent local DJs to keep the party going late into the night.

Hennu Stall, 3920 Zermatt

Kinhütte

A thousand edelweiss

Reaching the Kinhütte, a refuge which clings to the mountainside at an altitude of 2500m, is no easy task. But if you do choose to follow in the footsteps of Viktor Imboden, who renovated the cabin from top to bottom, the experience is one you won’t forget. The slope is steep but it’s dotted with radiant Edelweiss; you then need to skirt round the rock face of the Wildibach and make your way across a rope bridge to reach the refuge. There, Michèle will be waiting for you with a gigantic Savoyard lunch, a worthy reward for your efforts.

a 3-hour walk from Randa

Meringue - Alpine Concept Store

Mountain chic

This cosy looking store, in the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn, is the perfect spot to find a mountain souvenir which will look great in your home. It’s stocked with all sorts of home accessories and trinkets, from luxuriant winter blankets to keep out the cold to wooden children’s toys, not to mention the finest local foods.

Bodmenstrasse 14, 3920 Zermatt

Metzgerei Bayard

A celebration of the terroir

The window display alone is enough to make your mouth water, with rows of shelves buckling under the weight of local goodies. The counter is laden with Valais cheeses and strings of sausages, making this Zermatt’s top destination for foodies.

Bahnhofstrasse 9, 3920 Zermatt