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St Moritz may have the glamour, Verbier may have the cool, Wengen may have the pistes, but ZERMATT beats them all – Zermatt has the Matterhorn. No other natural or human structure in the whole country is so immediately recognizable; indeed, in most people’s minds the Matterhorn stands for Switzerland, like the Eiffel Tower stands for France. Part of the reason it’s so famous is that it stands alone, its impossibly pointy shape sticking up from an otherwise uncrowded horizon above Zermatt village. But you get the feeling that it would be famous even if it stood within a chain of peaks: there’s just something about it that’s bizarrely mesmerizing to see for real, and it may well be the most memorable part of your whole holiday.
Emerging from Zermatt station is an experience in itself: this one little village – which has managed, much to its credit, to cling on to its old brown chalets and atmospheric twisting alleys – welcomes everybody, regardless of financial status, and the station square is where all worlds collide. Backpackers and hikers rub shoulders with high society glitterati amidst a fluster of tour groups, electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages, but everyone has come to see the mountain. Zermatt has no off-season – it’s crowded year-round – but the crowds never seem to matter. You may have to shoulder your way down the main street, but the terrain all around is expansive enough that with a little effort you could vanish into the wilderness, leaving everyone else behind.
The small area around Zermatt features 36 mountains over 4000m, a statistic as enticing to summer hikers as to winter skiers. As early as the 1820s, British climbers adopted the isolated hamlet as a base camp from which to scale the nearby peaks. The first hotel opened in 1838. All through the nineteenth century, word of the place spread, and the local community quickly saw the potential: grand hotels went up and public funds were diverted into construction of the Gornergrat rack railway at the turn of the century. The skiing boom of the 1960s saw the hamlet double in size, but today it’s still acceptably small and low-key, rooted to the valley floor in a natural bowl open to the south. The Gornergrat railway lifts you up to a spectacular vantage point overlooking the Monte Rosa massif, with its summit the Dufourspitze (4634m) – the highest point in Switzerland. The skiing is good, but in many ways the hiking is better, with some of the most scenic mountain walks in the whole country within easy reach of the village.
Zermatt is car-free, but it doesn’t necessarily pay to drive all the way up the valley. Certain sections of the large parking garages at and near Visp station offer free indefinite parking if you ask for a permit at the train station ticket office when you buy your train ticket to Zermatt. However, free parking only applies if you’ve parked in the right place – look for the clearly-marked “BVZ park and ride” car parks to the east (covered) and west (open) of the station, and only use those areas marked with the BVZ logo (not the SBB one). Check with the train station staff that you’re in the right place before you head off or you’ll be charged when you return.
If you do choose to drive up the valley, all the villages along the way are well aware of tourists’ desire to get something for nothing, and all of them either charge for parking, or happily ticket offenders for parking illegally. In Täsch, the end of the road, there are nine massive parking areas, none of them exorbitant, but all still charging more than the nothing you can get away with at Visp.
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