Zermatt is a ski town in the canton of Valois in the south of Switzerland, set in a long valley below the range of alps that includes the famous Matterhorn. It is a ski town that provides the accommodation for the multitude of skiers that come to enjoy the many ski runs above the town almost all year round. Despite being a ski dormitory, the town has many other qualities apart from accommodating and feeding the influx of skiers during the high ski season.
- The Black Larch Buildings
It is the architecture of the town that is of immediate interest on the visitor’s first arrival. It is a combination of large modern wooden Swiss Chalets that follow the river up the valley towards the Matterhorn and the old black wooden houses that are the survivors from the pre-ski tourist times. Some of these small wooden structures look like they go back to the pre-alpine tourists who started coming to the valley when British aristocrats got excited about climbing the Matterhorn back in the 1860s.
In the pamphlet issued by the Swiss Tourist Bureau about the Glacier Express train, its comments about Zermatt seem to suggest how lucky the local people and their descendants were when Alpine Tourism began and the train lines were built to ensure easy access by the climbers and the skiers.
The foresight of the railway engineers of the time is amazing: they realised that the valley communities who had lived off the land for centuries would have to look to tourism to sustain them in the long term. And so it was – the new rail connection brought a new lease of life and prosperity to the people of Zermatt.
If only indigenous objections to the arrival of the modern world to other uncivilized countries could be resolved as happily as this. However it is clear that it is not as simple in Zermatt as the brochure suggests. The preservation of the old black larch houses by the citizens of Zermatt indicate that they are very fond of their heritage and go to great lengths to preserve these curious wooden buildings of their ancestors.
The original valley communities were farmers who lived off their sheep, cattle and goats and moved them up and down the mountain slopes with the seasons. They built the black barns at various points of these treks to provide shelter for the animals and their carers as well as the storage of hay. From our hotel in Zermatt, you can see the small black buildings high on the slopes where even the most ambitious trekker would hesitate to go. One of the most interesting sections of Zermatt town is in the centre not far from the railway station where a small section the old larch homes remains. These houses are of varying designs to cater for the different needs of humans, animals, cool rooms and the storage of equipment and animal fodder.
One of the curious features of these houses was the vermin protection. The foundations were designed with large circular rocks being sandwiched between two short wooden posts to ensure that the mice had to be acrobats of some skill and daring in order to get into these black buildings.
2. The Matterhorn
Modern Zermatt owes a great deal of its prosperity to its proximity to the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is a beautiful sight against a clear blue sky and there is a bridge in the centre of town over the ‘caged’ mountain river that is the key spot for tourists to take their ‘selfies’ with the mountain as a backdrop. However its beauty also carries with it a tragic history. In 1864, the first successful human climb of the Matterhorn involving English adventurers and local guides ended in tragedy when their rope broke on the way down with four members of the group of seven falling to their death on the glacier below.
Rather than common-sense prevailing with everyone swearing off taking the risk of killing themselves by climbing high mountains, the world decided they needed to come to Switzerland and climb the Matterhorn, made all the more exciting by the possibility of free-falling a few thousand metres to the Glacier below. The poignant headstones beside the Church of St Peter’s in Zermatt are evidence of some of the over five hundred alpinists who have tried climbing the Matterhorn and dying in the process. The closest I personally got to falling to my death in the environs of the Matterhorn was when we caught the Gondolas up to Gornergrat and Schwarsee for a closer look at the Matterhorn. Rather than falling to my death, we were able to have a picnic at 3000 metres with clear views of the top of the Matterhorn and still be home for afternoon tea. The thrill of conquering my way to the top of the Matterhorn with ice-pick and ropes doesn’t appeal.
The other contribution the Matterhorn makes to the Swiss and Zermatt economy is its perceived inspiration in the design of Switzerland’s premier chocolate bar, the Toblerone. The chocolate bar was designed and made by Theodor Tobler in 1908 and the recipe includes milk chocolate, nougat, almonds and honey. My theory is that someone close to Theodor was climbing the Matterhorn with his food pack filled with separate pieces of chocolate, nougat and almonds and decided that it would be more convenient if they were all combined in one block…plus some honey. Whether the theory is true or not, Zermatt makes much of the idea that the shape of the Matterhorn is the source of the shape of the Toblerone and this is promoted in signs all over the town. Not to be too parochial, the images include the emblem of the Swiss Red Cross as well as the much hunted Ibex assisting a cable car to scale the Matterhorn.
I probably knew about the Toblerone before I knew about the Matterhorn. Relatives in the 1960’s and 1970s used to bring home gifts of Toblerones from their overseas travels as it was meant to be such an exotic treat and a clear hint to let me know what I had missed out on due to my lack of world travel. However I recall deciding that the Toblerone brand had gone too far the day my travelling sister came home with a giant, foot-long Toblerone bar as a gift from overseas. I think a large portion got surreptitiously thrown in the bin…you can have too much Toblerone unless you are stuck on the west face of the Matterhorn waiting for rescue by the red helicopter.
3. Swiss Cuisine (An unfair review)
On one of our nights in Zermatt, some in our party decided we needed to experience real Swiss cuisine and so we booked ourselves into a Fondue Restaurant. For me it brought back less than fond memories of the dinner party period in the 1970s/80s in Australia. It reminded me of visiting victims in Burns Wards after oil explosions in Fondue pots or the equally unpleasant brawls that arose over guests who dropped too many pieces of stale bread in the bubbling cheese brew. If these risks weren’t enough, let me point out that the specialised fondue fork is not far from being an unconcealed weapon in the hands of a drunken relative who has just burnt his mouth again with hot sticky Gruyere cheese. Putting aside these difficult memories, I agreed to the choice of the Fondue dinner spot, as long as I didn’t have to eat hot cheese and stale bread. I determined my best option to stay in tune with the night was to order the grated potato Rostie with ham and cheese.
If I was a restaurant reviewer and I hadn’t heard of Fondue cuisine, I might have been appalled when the following items were ungraciously delivered to our table;
- A saucepan of melted cheese over an open flame.
- A bowl of ageing bread pieces.
- A bowl of small cooked potatoes.
An ageing out of work Swiss mountain climber was directed to our table to demonstrate the workplace health and safety method of extracting hot cheese from a pot onto squashed potato as well as the ‘ten-twirl of the fork’ approach to dipping bread in the cheese. My fellow diners survived the fondue but I don’t think enjoyment was part of the experience. With my Roesti dish, I can only say what we used to inappropriately say back in the dinner party days of the 1970s, “Even a starving Biafran would have struggled.”
Despite my issues with Fondue, I enjoyed visiting Zermatt very much for its practicality in providing a thriving economy for its citizens based on the ski industry as well its dedication to ensuring that their town remained beautifully linked to its past and its stunning natural environment between the mountains and its swift running river, the Matter Vispa. It honoured its history with a very interesting and innovative Matterhorn Museum and ensured that its atmosphere wasn’t destroyed by motor vehicles and their pollution; you could only be run over by electric cars in down-town Zermatt. Last of all, who cannot love a statue paying homage to the local icons, the Ibex and the local cute furry animal, the Marmot.