ZERMATT, Switzerland — “You know Teddy Roosevelt climbed it,” an elderly man, dressed in a puffy jacket and black beanie hat, said to us. We were standing on Kirchbrücke, the church bridge in Zermatt, Switzerland, taking photos of the Matterhorn. “He [Roosevelt] came here on his honeymoon,” the man continued. “I think he climbed The Horn just to show off.”
It seemed everyone in this charming town had a story about the Matterhorn, one of Europe’s most famous peaks. The iconic four-sided mountain stands alone in the alpine landscape, rising 14,692 feet above sea level. Its near-perfect pyramid shape makes it one of the most recognizable mountains in the world, and one of the world’s most photographed peaks. Its rocky, towering form stands sentinel over lovely Zermatt.
We visited Zermatt in early winter, a bucket list trip to see the famous mountain town and to ski the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. Though a visit any time of the year would be fine as there’s plenty to see and do in all seasons; there’s even skiing year-round in the upper regions of the mountain. We’d taken the train from Zurich, about a three-hour, one-train-change trip from Zurich, and checked into the Schweizerhof Zermatt hotel, located in the center of the village.
The Schweizerhof recently reopened after a complete re-do by French hotelier Michel Reybier. We liked the hotel’s seamless blend of rustic alpine (is that a stuffed marmot?) with warm, modern décor (light woods, clean lines, and pops of color). The lobby opens to the buzzing Kitchen XXL restaurant, with a long bar, showcase kitchen, and cushy seating areas. Also on the ground floor is La Muña, arguably one of the finest restaurants in Zermatt, serving exquisite Peruvian-Japanese dishes. In the basement is the Cheese Factory (more on that later). Other hotel amenities include a classy fumoir, and a top-notch spa.
There are 95 rooms, all modern and elegant, with neutral palettes, light woods, crisp, lush linens, and white marble baths. Most have a private terrace or balcony with views of the Matterhorn. What a treat it was to throw back the curtains each morning and have in-your-face views of the towering behemoth bathed in early light.
We were anxious to explore this small, car-free picturesque village, so we threw on our puffy parkas, mittens, and hats and walked Bahnhofstrasse, the main street, lined with restaurants, pubs, bakeries, and shops. We were expecting Zermatt, which some say is the most famous ski town in Switzerland, to be high-end and a little glitzy, like Aspen, St. Moritz, or Courchevel. It’s not. Yes, there are plenty of places to buy high-end watches, jewelry, and clothing, but the overall vibe is laidback and friendly. We dodged the horse-drawn carriages and electric car shuttles, and popped into a few interesting shops, including Laderach for chocolate and Matterhorn Paradise for souvenirs.
We also stopped to read the “Walk of Climb” bronze plaques along main street, honoring 11 Matterhorn alpinists, including the seven first ascenders of the Matterhorn, the first two ascenders to reach the summit from the Italian side, the first woman to reach the summit, and the first woman to cross the Matterhorn from Zermatt to Breuil.
The story of the first ascent of Matterhorn is a grisly, sad one, best told at the Matterhorn Museum Zermatlantis. The museum contains a reconstruction of Zermatt in the 19th century, as it would have been on July 14, 1865, when a group of seven men summitted the Matterhorn for the first time. On the trickier descent, one of the climbers slipped, the safety rope broke, and four climbers tumbled to their death. Artifacts at the museum include a section of the broken rope, and one of the boots worn by Lord Francis Douglas, whose body has never been found.
That evening we dined at the Cheese Factory, a cozy subterranean dining room serving traditional raclette and fondue. We shared the black truffle and champagne fondue, two flavors served in a divided pot, with a platter of veggies, potatoes, and bread.
The next day, we boarded the Gornergrat train, a cogwheel railway traveling from the village to the ski slopes, at more than 10,000 feet. From there we skied wide, gently sloping trails, with sweeping views of the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains peaks. We had no idea where we were going but kept to the red runs (intermediate trails are marked in red, as opposed to our blue squares) and kept heading down. We ended up at the far end of the village with a long walk back to the hotel.
On our final day, we hopped on the Matterhorn Express cable car to Trockener Steg and then the cable car for the last climb to Klein Matterhorn, where we had access to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, a massive ski area with stunning views and long groomed runs. In fact, there are more than 200 miles of trails, some as long as 15 miles! We mapped out a route that would take us into Italy, where we had a lovely lunch of homemade pasta and house red wine, and access to the easy-going Cervinia resort trails (you need an international ski pass for this).
We were delighted to be skiing Zermatt, but warm weather months offer their own rewards, including magnificent hiking. Trains, trams, cable cars, and funiculars provide access to trails for all level of abilities, some start right from town. A favorite is the short, 20-minute or so hike to Stellisee Lake, set at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. The view of the Matterhorn reflected on the surface of the glassy lake is said to be one of the best views of the famous summit. We’ll have to come back to check it out.
It was our last night in Zermatt and we were après-skiing at the popular Papperla Pub, sharing a pitcher of Feldschlösschen with newfound friends. “You know the stories, don’t ya?” someone at the table asked. “There were people who thought the survivors cut that rope.”
He was talking about the tragedy of first ascent of the Matterhorn. From there, the conversation, centered around the Horn, continued. Seems that everyone in Zermatt has a story about this famed pyramid-shaped peak.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org