Difference between revisions of "Zermatt"
Revision as of 09:48, 23 May 2009
Zermatt  is a car-free village in the upper Valais, one of the alpine cantons of Switzerland. It's probably best known as a platform for skiing and mountaineering, especially on the mountain which towers above the village, the Matterhorn. The surroundings are breathtaking but this comes at a price: Accommodation in Zermatt is among the most expensive in Switzerland.
Zermatt is surrounded by a range of fabulous mountains, but it is famous for the Matterhorn. It was one of the last alpine mountains to be conquered (in 1865), and the first expedition that reached the top ended dramatically (only 3 of the 7 climbers survived).
If you've never experienced a car-free city of any size then Zermatt could be a bit of a surprise: during the high season nearly 20,000 people living in a town with only 5 or 6 streets and more significantly almost no internal combustion vehicles except very occasional outside delivery and specialist services. This means that you can leave a noisy bar or party, and a few minutes later on foot find yourself in utter tranquility. You can sit on the hotel balcony and listen to dozens of varieties of songbirds while watching the sun set on one of the most striking mountains in the western world. Wake up with the sun in a four or five-star room or a canvas tent to the sound of the aforementioned birds, crickets, church bells, and children's laughter.
Almost all vehicles in Zermatt are battery driven and almost completely silent. Taxi drivers have a habit of assuming that pedestrians have eyes in the backs of their heads, with occasional alarming though seldom injurious consequences. Horse drawn vehicles are equipped with bells and many startled pedestrians might well wish taxis were similarly provided.
You can cycle or stroll in complete safety. Really unless you are in love with your car you'll be tempted to look at the real-estate adds offering the rare but occasional opportunity to own a restaurant on one of the side streets, just hire one Swiss (and show that you have capital to operate for a year) and you are good to go.
Incidentally there is a version of the standard Zermatt skimap/summer walking map in English although for some reason the lift stations only seem to hand out the German/French versions with tickets. The map is free - you can generally find it on one of the stands in the lift stations or in the Tourist Information centre.
The name "Zermatt" is a contraction of the local dialect words "zer", which means "to", and "matta", which means "field" or "meadow". Therefore: "to the field", although many of the fields have since had hotels of apartment houses built on them.
Probably the best way to reach Zermatt is by train, since you won't be able to drive once you get there anyway. Around half of the trains are operated by a private company, but the tickets are available through the Swiss Federal Railway . For a holiday to a specific destination the cheapest option is most likely a Swiss Transfer Ticket. In general rail passes are valid on the train, but there is a surcharge.
Private cars can only drive as far as Täsch. The last 7 km must be travelled by train or by taxi. In winter it is necessary to reserve your parking space well in advance (tel: +41 27 967 33 66). List of park & ride companies.
If it's in line with your budget Air Zermatt  will fly you in from major airports around.
It's also possible to book a airport transfer by limousine or van to get to Zermatt. 
Be aware that if you inadvertently drive your car into Zermatt, you will be fined 100CHF on the spot. The Swiss German policemen will not accept an excuse that you didn't see the sign (he will show you a photocopy of a photo of the sign and tell you that he is only doing his job). If you have never been to Zermatt before and are not a skier or walker and are not aware that it is a car free zone, it is easy to miss the sign.
The village of Zermatt, while dense, is geographically very small. There are three main streets which run along the banks of the river Vispa, and numerous cross-streets, especially around the station and the church which forms the center of the village. In general anything is at most a twenty minute walk away if you are fit. There is no motor traffic to worry about, so walking right down the middle of the street is not only possible but advisable, though do watch out for the occasional mess left by horses (or goats).
During the summer there are roads and hiking trails leading up to a number of year-round restaurants in the direction of the Matterhorn.
Many of the higher-end hotels have porters who will meet you at the station with a small electric car/truck and will ferry you directly to check in, depositing the luggage in your room. A few of the really exclusive ones still use horse-drawn carriages.
There is a small fleet of electric or solar powered busses that go from one end of town to the other and to all the ski stations every 8 to 10 minutes. They are included in the ski-pass and are a good way of easily getting around town, though they don't go down the main street (Bahnhofstrasse).
There are a series of cable car runs leading all the way to the summit of the Klein Matterhorn (3883m), presenting the highest scenic outlook platform in Europe. A ride along the entire series costs 82CHF (about 55EUR) round trip.
Zermatt is a great place to mountain bike although it doesn't appear to have really become popular there yet. Bikes can be hired from several shops around Zermatt from about 35CHF per day. For some reason helmets are not included and cost around 5CHF extra.
If you plan on cycling through town, take note that the main street (Bahnhofstrasse) is closed to bicycles(unless pushed) from the train station to the church for most of the afternoon, and the police are quick to fine anyone who does so anyway.
Mountain bikes may be carried on most of the ski lifts that are open in the summer although you will be charged extra. Lift passes that are valid for more than 3 days appear to include bike transport as standard although you can pay for individual journeys if you wish. Note that the Gornegrat train is not included in some summer lift passes.
You can also buy area passes on a daily basis that include the lifts on one particular peak (either Rothorn or Schwarzsee). These passes are available in mountain bike versions for not much extra.
The following lifts should allow your bikes:
The tourist information centre next to the Zermatt train station sell a mountain biking map for 2CHF which includes a number of routes down from the various peaks. The map states that Zermatt's cycling policy is that any track wider than 2 meters (6.5 ft) is a valid cycling route. There are numerous roads that run down and around the mountains in the summer that carry cyclists in safety. Remember that Zermatt is generally car free so you will only rarely see a powered vehicle.
The Rothorn area is particularly good and suitable for all levels of cyclist. It is possible to cycle down from the summit following a wide but occasionally steep and rocky path down the back of the mountain that brings you back to the Blauhard lift station. From there you can follow the quiet mountain road routes all the way down to Zermatt. There are some excellent cross mountain routes that present you with stunning views and take you over to Gournergrat near Rifflealp. Unfortunately there is no cycling route down on the official map from that point so you can either get on the Gournergrat train or turn around and come back down to a lower point on the Rothorn.
The restaurant at Fluhalp is a pleasant first ride from the Blauhard lift station and a good way of familarising yourself with a hire bike.
Make sure that you take some good quality cycling gloves since you can expect significant vibration from cycling along rocky tracks!
Check out the village cemetery. It's full of gravestones of people that died in the mountains, mostly on their way back.
For a tiny hamlet Zermatt has more hotels than most big cities. A rough estimate places the number of places to stay at somewhere in the range of 600-700. Apparently that's still not quite enough. If you want a good value room then perhaps you should consider booking ahead.
There are other options. You can camp, or as throughout Europe vacation apartments are the rage. Time shares are another option: if you know you want to ski one week per year, maybe go in with a friend or two on a property. Foreigners are allowed to buy up to a certain square meterage in Switzerland, and you are free to lease, rent, or otherwise assign the property any way you like, barring industrial use.
If you're on a budget, try camping. The climate is mild, even in the winter, so if you know a bit about camping you should be able to stay warm and dry at pretty much any altitude lower than about 500m above the village pretty much any time of year.
For beginner campers there is a camping area open in Zermatt during the summer months. It's to the left of the train station's main exit. Follow the street for a couple of hundred meters.
The campsite in Tasch is only about 100 meters (330 ft) from the train station and works out at about 20CHF a night for 2 people sharing a small tent without a car.
Stove fuels are reasonably hard to find although you can buy them in some of the outdoor shops in Zermatt itself. You are unlikely to find any in Tasch. MSR butane/propane canisters and Coleman's liquid fuel are definitely available if you hunt around. Obviously in Switzerland you can also buy fondue fuel (usually meths) which will work well in Trangia stoves.
Despite the great number of hotels, pensions, and vacation apartments in Zermatt, few can be considered "budget".
Hotel Bahnhof  offers hostel-like dormitory accommodation for 33CHF as well as singles from CHF65 and doubles from CHF90. It is just east of Bahnhofplatz.
Matterhorn Hostel , Schluhmattstrasse 32, offers dorm accommodation for CHF33, or CHF29 for stays of 3 nights and longer.
If extensive hiking is in your plans, mountain huts may be an option.
Near the base of the Matterhorn, the SAC-operated Schönbielhütte  offers dormitory lodging for CHF32. SAC members are accommodated first and enjoy cheaper rates. Schönbielhütte is a 4 hour hike from Zermatt via Zmutt, but consider the more scenic 6 hour route via Pension Edelweiss, Hotel du Trift, and Höhbalmen.
Near Rothorn, the Fluhalp Restaurant  offers dorm accommodation for CHF29 or doubles for CHF86. Fluhalp is accessible on foot (3 hours from Zermatt via Winkelmatten) or by funicular/cable car (Zermatt-Sunnega-Blauhard, then 45 min walk).
Täsch is the next village down the mountain from Zermatt itself and shuttle trains run between the two villages approximately every 10-20 minutes during the day. The journey time is about 10 minutes and passes through some stunning scenery. The last train down the mountain to Tasch leaves Zermatt at around 11.20 pm. The trains cost 7.60 CHF each way and tickets can be bought from automatic machines. The machines only accept coins or 20 CHF notes although you can buy tickets from the ticket office instead for most of the day. Note that the cash dispensers don't give out notes smaller than 50 CHF so don't arrive late in Tasch without any change.
Taesch offers beautiful cross-country skiing trails from difficult to easy. If you don't have your own x-country skis, there is a shop in the village right by the train terminal that rents equipment. A day pass is quite cheap costing only CHF 5. which can be purchased at the train terminal (window 1) or in the ski-rental shop.