Our second winter trip was to Zermatt, Switzerland.
My wife wanted to see the Alps up close (she’s seen them from a plane, aplenty)….and it was sort of an obvious “winter” trip in Europe.
Zermatt, in the winter anyway, is a serious ski town. But we don’t ski!
Although we did actually buy ski pants for the kids and intended to get them some introductory ski lessons…
But about a week before we tried to book some lessons at the “ski school” and were disappointed to hear that they only ran the ski school during school vacation weeks.
Okay. But what about private lessons? Well they would run pretty expensive. We calculated that it would cost $400 for the two of them to rent skis and have a mere 3-hour lesson. No thanks!
Did you know that Switzerland was expensive???
It is actually VERY EXPENSIVE.
So we were getting a little nervous about this trip. Flights weren’t that expensive – £512 or $771 for the four of us, plus an additional £200 for train tickets from Zurich, BUT the hotel was a whopping – 1,550 Swiss Francs (about $1,800).
What exactly were we going to do for nearly 5 days and 4 nights in Zermatt if we weren’t going to ski?
Well we did plenty and had one of our most memorable trips yet!
First, take a quick glance at our GALLERY.
The flight from London to Zurich is not long at all – only 80 minutes in the air but about 2 hours all things considered. Swiss Air is a really nice airline.
We saw two American men there tearing apart their luggage at passport control in Zurich. Guess what one of them lost? He asked to go the American embassy or consulate and they told him he couldn’t – not without a passport. Ugh, what a nightmare.
Then it was “train time”. Nearly 2.5 hours from Zurich, through Bern and a few other stops, to Visp. It was a little grey but still scenic. Then we hopped another 40 minute train straight up, into the town of Zermatt. On the way we caught our first, of what would be many, glimpse of the Matterhorn.
The hotel (Best Western) took us by electric car (think “big golf carts”) no more than 1/4 of a mile to our hotel. In fact all the vehicles in Zermatt were glorified electric golf cars – except for the fancy horse and buggy that transported people to the $2,000 per night Le Petit Cervin. Our bags were packed heavy with, well, many layers of clothing.
The temperature was forecast to be -12 degrees Celsius in town most of the week and up to -17 degrees Celsius atop the mountains (about 0 degrees Fahrenheit).
The hotel driver told me to take a picture of the Matterhorn….”because you might not see it again”. So I took a handful just in case he proved prophetic.
Since it was late afternoon we weren’t going to be able to do too much. The kids went swimming at the hotel pool while I bundled up and went to scout out town. Mainly I was looking for some place to eat dinner. I’d heard rumors of $70 pizzas in Switzerland and was not so excited about getting ripped off at every meal. In the GALLERY you can see some of the outrageous prices – although not quite as bad as $70 pizzas….they were still pretty high. My Italian mother-in-law would have a heart attack if she paid $24 for pasta aglio olio!
So I went back to the hotel with the announcement that we’d be eating “supermarket food” for dinner. And we did. Bread, cheese, salami, a small salad, etc.
Even though Zermatt is an hour ahead of London, I was still up super early for time at the gym. The others slept in, as usual.
Thankfully breakfast was included with our room. Everyone was under strict orders to “load up” on food! I myself ate probably 3 times what I normally eat in the morning.
We walked through town and to the ski lift where we bought tickets up to the top of the Klein Matterhorn. The last leg would be on a gondola and at the top we’d see the Glacier Paradise in addition to, hopefully, close views of the THE Matterhorn (the pyramidal peak).
Right off the bat the ski lift ride was amazing – as you can probably see from our GALLERY.
We made a couple short stops on the way up to take in the views before we got on the jam-packed gondola that would take us 12,700 feet high!
At the summit we first ventured into the glacier, into the ice cave:
It was definitely cold way up there and in a huge ice cube, and it’d get much colder shortly. But we also had to deal with “altitude sickness”. I was definitely very dizzy, as was John. To cope we just had to move very slowly.
After about 40 minutes in the glacier we popped out and into the cafe/restaurant for hot chocolate.
Here’s the video footage up to this point:
The views weren’t perfect because there were some intermittent clouds and a lot of snow blowing around. But it was still incredibly, painfully bright. I didn’t have any sunglasses which were certainly needed. Inez said it was the reflection off the snow that amplified the sun.
After our rest we ventured up to the very top, the exposed viewing platform. Well, at least I went up!
My kids couldn’t take the cold and lingered back by the elevator while Inez and I took the stairs up.
IT WAS FREEZING and THE WIND WAS HOWLING.
I had my hat (preserving my hair!) and my gloves off so I could take pictures and I think I was flirting with frostbite. My fingers were numb for about 2 hours afterwards. The was a British woman up there who was begging me to put my hat on. She was very concerned but understood neither how important my hair is nor how important it was that I get great footage for my blog readers!
The Matterhorn and the town of Zermatt were obscured by clouds and just as I was about to wimp out and hike down….the clouds started to move and I had to spend another 5 minutes up there. So what if I ended up getting a frostbitten toe or two amputated, right?
Here’s the HD footage:
Before heading down we watched some educational movie they had running and I did go outside to watch the skiers starting their southward descent….to Italy.
On the ride back down the mountain we saw amazing views of Zermatt below, innumerable skiers, alpine ibex, and some daring ice climbers deep in a gorge. Inez and I were stunned at how literally “awesome” the vistas were, at how much this trip was already exceeding our expectations.
It was a heavy, late lunch so we were going to do “supermarket dinner” again, if at all. We went back to the hotel. I made the kids wait 30 minutes(!) before going into the pool; Inez hit the gym; I found the sauna; and the kids also spent some time playing indoor badminton and ping pong (or at least TRYING to play them).
I shot so much video footage this first day I got nervous I’d fill up my memory card. Here’s video of the video playing at the top of the Kleinmatterhorn:
The morning was another repeat with me hitting the gym and everyone loading up on the breakfast buffet.
We were going back up, but to a slightly different destination and via a cog railway.
Now there was, of course, snow everywhere and my kids were dying to go sledding or “sledging” as they called it in Zermatt.
We tried to get some information from our info-deficient hotel staff but they weren’t that helpful. They advised us to take some hotel sleds up the mountain and figure it out. But you can’t just sled down 10,000 foot mountains. Ah….you could die! There’re cliffs everywhere. Nonetheless, Inez and the kids toted a couple of plastic sleds with them up on the railway.
The ride up the Gornergrat Railway was just as spectacular as the one up to Kleinmatterhorn. The top was more bearable weatherwise….and clear as can be. Again from 10,285 feet up we enjoyed terrific views of the Matterhorn, the surrounding mountains, and Zermatt down below.
On the way down, In search of some sledding opportunities we de-trained at the first stop, still quite high up. There, after much consternation and interrogation, we learned that we could rent sledges and zip down a trail there that was designed for such.
For 8 Swiss Francs each ($18 total) we rented two REAL sleds and put the plastic ones aside. Actually I tied them to the back of my sledge figuring that I would have to ultimately, somehow, get them back to the hotel.
So we are sitting probably at least 8,000-9,000 feet up and looking down a steep trail…
We were SCARED TO DEATH about how we could possibly steer, brake, and somehow survive the trip down – Inez doubled with John and Christine with me. Apparently you use your feet to brake by digging in your heels.
BUT these things were on rails, i.e. EXTREMELY FAST, and seemingly indifferent to all attempts to diminish their speed.
Somehow, white-knuckled, and cursing we made it all the way down without (significant) injury. Actually at one part the trail goes whizzing right by some serious protruding rocks….and at the end it’s EXTREMELY STEEP. One nice French lady warned us about the end – she told us to come to a complete stop before the last hill.
Yeah it was certainly scary, but also very exhilarating. We parked the plastic sleds to the side, caught the next train up, and switched kids for a second “go” down.
Time for a break. While we warmed up inside (Inez and I were caked in ice/snow from foot-braking) with hot chocolate the kids argued over who was the worse parent to sledge with.
It was probably me. I was not only scared of crashing, I was also very worried about my knees. It seemed very risky digging my feet into the snow so hard considering that both of my ACLs are already 100% torn.
We went up again and on the third run, towards the bottom, Chrissy and I smashed head-on into a large pole. At the last second I actually reached out to make sure my hands hit it first but we were still going extremely fast at impact. Thankfully no one was really hurt.
Sometime on our fourth run down I figured out how to brake. You see I was leaning back the whole time when the key was to sit up and lean forward – I guess because it puts more weight on your feet. The insight was counter-intuitive, i.e. leaning DOWN a mountain to stop, but I think I remember something like this from the mere two times I tried to ski. Also I had a heavy backpack on that I was leaning back with….that probably wasn’t helping me much before either.
So our fifth and final run went a lot smoother….but that was it for the day.
We continued our routine back at the hotel of pool, sauna, and a newly discovered steam room. Although for dinner tonight we were going to go into our pockets, i.e. eat at one of these pricey restaurants.
We went to Whymper-Stube restaurant and I must say, I had one of the best meals I’ve EVER had. (Too bad it’s closing in a month, due to retirement).
Inez and I ordered a “meat fondue”. They gave us raw filet mignon and we cooked/dipped it in a super-hot mushroom bullion broth. It only took about 45 seconds once submerged. Not only was this very tasty, but the sides (frites, cucumber salad, cabbage salad, tomato salad, carrot salad, 4 dipping sauces) and the garnishes (I counted 11 different “weeds” as my son calls fruits and vegetables) were simply divine.
John had a racclette and Chrissy got a soup….but who really cares what they ate???
The meat fondue was $50 per person and worth every single
penny swiss franc!
Some more footage:
So we had another full day ahead of us and weren’t quite sure what to do. If only we skied…
We had a rough idea to find some hills in town for the kids to sled on and then maybe all go ice skating.
Again, we set off with them toting sleds and an orphan ski pole that the kids were constantly fighting over, and me refusing to carry any of it for them.
There had to be some hiking trails around but Google, TripAdvisor, and the hotel staff weren’t very enlightening so we just walked toward the ski lift/Matterhorn, following what seemed like a path to somewhere.
We found a hill and the kids spent some time sledding. Then we continued on up the mountainside, in the face of some violent puerile moaning (Christine!) before parking ourselves on a sunny bench. What was amazing was how warm it was in the sun versus how cold it was in the shade. We could actually take our coats (and boots!) off in the sun. We sat there for a very long time, relaxing before chatting up some Canadians passing by. They told us to continue up “about 12 minutes” and we’d hit the hamlet of Zum See where we could enjoy hot chocolate or Swiss wine.
It was pretty steeply uphill, and icy of course. I was a little nervous with my clumsy kids on one particular section where a little slip would have been a big “goodbye”. When we did arrive in Zum See there wasn’t any “room at the inn”, i.e. no seats left at the restaurant. So, as the leader of the clan, I declared that we were heading up another 20-minute difficult climb to Furi. Oh, there was some moaning and a great gnashing of teeth!
But the faster I walked/climbed….the harder it was for me to hear them whining in the rear!
We enjoyed a very nice lunch at a very mediocre pizzeria in Furi – and then started the much easier, yet still slippery trek down, hoping to reach the Matterhorn Museum of Mountaineering before it closed.
You know I’ve been into a bazillion museums, palaces, historical houses, and whatnot this past year and some of them have really stunk.
But this one, this tiny little museum in a tiny little town DID NOT STINK. Inez said to me, “You don’t know the Swiss do you? Everything they do is perfect…”
This museum really bookended our fun, scenic trip by informing us on the short yet still fascinating history of Zermatt.
Zermatt’s draw, before ski lifts(!), was originally the Matterhorn and the town was essentially built by the wealthy, adventurous Brits who were intent on reaching its summit back in the so-called Golden Age of Mountaineering.
Apparently there was an egotistic race to be the first to climb the Matterhorn. Well, the Italians lost and the winning group suffered a tragic, infamous accident on their victory descent. Watch the drama, re-created in an old movie:
Okay, that was the gist(!) of our trip to Zermatt. It will certainly go down as one of our very favorite European excursions.
If you travel to Zermatt, bring your wallet and definitely stay at the Best Western Alpen because even at $400 a night it was about half the price, if not less than, of the other hotels there! Yeah, most of the hotels are pushing $1,000 a night!
Here’s one last link to our GALLERY.
After some back and forth about possibly extending our stay here in London until September, our original departure date held up. We are leaving for our “home” in New York in less than two months.
So we are going to make the most of London over that time period, i.e. no more Continental excursions.
However we are taking the long way home. We just booked one more biggie….an 11-day trip to Thailand right after the movers take our stuff away!