It was June 21, the summer solstice, and I was headed by train from the central Swiss city of Lucerne to the ski resort of Zermatt in southern Switzerland. It was a three-hour journey that ended in an escalating ride through the Visp Valley, a narrowing river gorge whose rushing waters drain the highest Alps into the mighty Rhone.
It felt like we were ascending into the middle of nowhere when the tiny Alpine village of Zermatt suddenly emerged above the approaching train station. Automobiles are not allowed to enter these crowded lanes and walkways, but electric taxis that buzz about noiselessly can sneak up on unsuspecting pedestrians.
It is enjoyable a walk around this picturesque centuries-old town, whose wooden structures date back to the 1700s. About 5,800 people are permanent residents, with millions of visitors enjoying Zermatt's charms each year.
The horse-drawn carriages are a more gentle way to see the sights, and the clopping of the horse hooves offer warnings to walkers who might be in the street. From the train station the fashionable town slopes upward past well-appointed hotels and shops. More than 50 restaurants, clubs and discos offer great apre-ski meals and entertainment, and many extend the fun into the wee morning hours year-round.
Zermatt lies at the foot of the Matterhorn and means "mountain meadow." It is the gateway to the most-photographed peak in the world. A jaunty ski cap tops the mountain, and is often tightened with ribbons of cottony clouds and white tufts that decorate its sides. It is too steep for snow to stick, so some call the pyramid-shaped outcropping a fang or shark fin that juts into the Alpine sky.
The Matterhorn has been accommodating climbers since 1865, including such political figures as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, who may have learned how to navigate the treacherous corridors of Parliament and Congress from their early Swiss exploits in the highest regions of the Alps. Over the years, hundreds of thousands have successfully navigated its four faces, but sadly about 12 perish each year. Many of the mountain's victims, including three from the first ascent, are buried in Zermatt's downtown cemetery.
The Matterhorn shares the borders of Switzerland and Italy and is one of the greatest year-round ski resorts, offering the most trail access in the world. The skiing is so good in summer that the United States and Canadian Olympic teams were training there when I arrived on a drizzly day at the bottom but a snow-filled one at the top.
On two occasions I ascended into the Alpine sky, once with the aid of the Gornergrat cog railway that arrives at a viewing platform and restaurant looming above the town in the clean mountain air at 12,600 feet. The incredible sights of the Gornergletscher glacier, the Matterhorn and the panorama of 29 other peaks over 14,000 feet is truly breathtaking, especially in this oxygen-deprived air. Very little was reaching my tingling brain, a warning to acclimate for a couple of days before venturing into the higher realms.
On my second ascent I was better prepared for the altitude. The snow was whistling outside of the gondola as we swayed to the Klein Matterhorn (12,740 feet), the highest reachable point for non-mountain climbers.
Skiers were riding the lifts up the slopes despite the blinding snow flurries. I settled for lunch at the local restaurant and descending into the Glacier Palace, an enchanting 1,000-yard tunnel. This is reformed each year and contains rooms with ice sculptures, sparkling natural crystals hanging from the ceiling and other-worldly lighting that turns the glacier pathways powder blue. Like rings on the core of a tree, snowfall can be measured back thousands of years.
On the gondola descent I stopped in the village of Furi, where it is possible return to Zermatt by hiking down the mountain paths, about an hour walk. The snow had now turned to rain, so I decided to stop off for lunch.
More than 50 restaurants dot the meadows of the Matterhorn region, many serving gourmet meals. I chose the warm and friendly family-owned Restaurant Furri, which has its own herd of cows and where I had the best steak and rosti (Swiss for hash-brown potatoes) of my visit. I couldn't stop raving about the homemade Alpine cheese, so nutty and sweet that I brought some home to relish and serve -- sparingly.
WHEN YOU GO
Whether you arrive on the first day of summer or when the snow is flying throughout the Swiss Alps -- or both -- you will enjoy the charms of one of the world's greatest ski resorts. A must visit while in Zermatt is the Matterhorn Museum, a glass-domed underground building on the site of the old casino. Revealed underneath is "Zermatlantis," a painstakingly accurate reproduction of village life over the centuries.
I stayed at the chalet-styled Walliserhof Hotel in Zermatt, right in the heart of the town's activities on Bahnhofstrasse, the main street. Be sure to try the restaurant's famous fondue, the best in the area: www.walliserhof-zermatt.ch.
For local cuisine, great sausage and schnitzel, try Restaurant Walliserkanne, also on Bahnhofstrasse: www.walliserkanne.ch. There are 120 hotels around town that offer a variety of accommodations in various price ranges, apartment rental options and a youth hostel.
Purchase a Swiss Pass before you leave for the best deals. This will give you free access to trains, buses and boats as well as admission to more than 470 museums and discounts on mountain railways: www.swisstravelsystem.com and www2.raileurope.com.
Swiss International Airlines has direct flights into Zurich from all over the United States and serves delicious meals that often include the local fare and Swiss wines. They can also make arrangements with hotels and transportation throughout Switzerland before you leave: www.swiss.com.
John Blanchette is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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