If I say the name ‘Zermatt’ what do you think of? Almost certainly, skiing. More specifically, posh skiing, a favourite with the royals. And these are some of Switzerland’s priciest slopes. But Zermatt does have another side.
Visiting the Alps in the summer is something that used to be very popular amongst us Brits, but we seem to have forgotten just how lovely it is up here in fine weather. There are meadows (Zermatt actually means ‘in the meadow’) full of wild flowers, forests and mountains full of wildlife. If you go up high enough – and that’s quite easy to do here – you’ll almost certainly see marmots. From the train on my way to the Riffelalp (the hotel prides itself on being 2222m high) I saw chamois not once but twice!
So, it’s very beautiful, the weather is good and there’s plenty to do. One of the main draws is walking and there are routes for all levels, lots of very clearly marked paths and the great bonus of the Gornergrat Railway that can pick you up along the way if you feel like you’ve done enough for one day! There are cafes and restaurants at each of its stops and it has jaw-dropping views all the way up of the Matterhorn and the other huge mountains here.
Gornergrat itself lies at over 3000m (more than 10,000 feet) and while the views are staggering, don’t expect to take too many photographs of the mountains in all their gloriously empty beauty. This is where the crowds come. Go down just one stop to Rotenboden and it’s quite different. There are a few serious walkers and mountain bikers and otherwise you’ll have the place to yourself. You can walk down to the next stop, Riffelberg, in 30-45 minutes or in another 30-45 back to Riffelalp where the glorious Riffelalp Resort sits, halfway between Zermatt and Gornergrat.
It may, in fact, look vaguely familiar to you. And it turns out this was the Swiss hotel that featured in The Night Manager. It has some other claims to fame, too, such as the highest outdoor pool in Europe (heated, you’ll be glad to hear to 35C). It also has the Matterhorn sitting at what feels like the bottom of its garden and virtually all the rooms, the restaurants and even that outdoor pool have views of it. If you wake up at night, the stars seem close enough to touch. And if you wake up early, you can watch the mountain turn pink then gold in the sunrise. Matterhorn watching is addictive.
The air up here is pretty intoxicating too. It’s unusually clean and clear down in Zermatt, as well, where only electric vehicles are allowed (plus a few splendid horse-drawn carriages). Zermatt is full of shops, restaurants and bars and there’s a fascinating museum devoted to the Matterhorn. You can discover how the mountain was first conquered – the historic 1865 ascent by the Englishman Edward Whymper which ended in tragedy for half of the party. There are quite extraordinary photographs of the building of the Solvay Hut in 1917 – at 4003m. There is an array of climbing memorabilia – boots and snowshoes, water bottles and early cameras. And finally, there is a lower floor devoted to Zermatt village life – a place, as its name implies that relied on the alpine meadows for its agriculture and hunkered down under the same steep roofs as its animals in the long, snowed-in winter. Just a few houses remain in the centre of town that date back to those days, surrounded now by deluxe hotels and restaurants.
Up in the Riffelalp, however (and with the obvious exception of the luxurious resort itself), life does not seem much changed from the days when the Solvay Hut was built – and you can see the hut itself high on the Matterhorn straight across from the hotel. You can hear the bells of the sheep and cows in the alpine meadows below the Matterhorn’s bare rock and glaciers and watch the ever-changing cloudscape around the peak of Switzerland’s most famous mountain. Tranquility guaranteed.
Riffelalp Resort: www.riffelalp.com
Swiss Travel System: www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk
For transfer tickets (trains you’re your airport to destination, from £116) and travel pass (unlimited travel on rail, bus, boat, trams and free museum entrance, from £197)
For more information on travel in Switzerland, visit www.MySwitzerland.com