Day #11, 037: On our rail journey from Lucerne to Zermatt, Mr. M & I quickly learned that the miraculous efficiency of the Swiss transportation system meant we had to be equally competent in order to make our transfers. Trains are timed such that you have about 5 minutes before you miss the connection.
We almost missed the first connection and thus, got our collective ass in gear for the second one, sprinted down the length of the train station and smugly boarded with plenty of time. Once again, pack lightly.
The final train snaked through the southern Swiss Alps, through tiny little villages and really beautiful mountain scenery. I ended up spending my trip just taking pictures from the train.
Three hours later, we found ourselves in Zermatt, the incredibly charming resort village at the base of the Matterhorn. Only electric cars are permitted in Zermatt in order to preserve the clean, crisp air that generally permits crystalline views of the Matterhorn.
Our hotel, the Coeur des Alpes, picked us up from the train station in a glorified electric golf cart and zipped us away to one of the hippest hotels I’ve ever seen (case in point: the lobby floor was see-through and looked down onto the chandelier-topped indoor infinity pool. I felt bad for de-classing the joint with my fave, comfy Crocs).
After welcome prosecco provided by our gracious hosts and a peek towards the vicinity of the Matterhorn (which was annoyingly enveloped in thick white fog but directly facing the hotel lobby), we ran off to the Gornergrat Bahn, a small railway that zips up from Zermatt to the peak of Gornergrat.
When planning the Switzerland trip, I had heard tell of a photo opportunity at the peak of Gornergrat, whereby you could pose with St. Bernard dogs wearing barrels directly in front of the Matterhorn.
While a traveler, I am also decidedly a sucker for kitsch and must admit that Mr. M heard more about how excited I was for the St. Bernard photo op than he did about any other part of our Swiss journey. I was a little giddy as we headed up… although perhaps that was the lack of oxygen as we went up & up & up.
Although we couldn’t see the famous peak itself, the ridiculously steep and windy railway felt like a smoother version of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland! Mr. M & I joked about whether or not we would be met at the peak by an angry animatronic Yeti with glowing eyes.
Sometime after passing the treeline, we were surprised to find that the train had stopped… a herd of grazing and very shaggy sheep had camped out across the tracks. Perhaps happily, they were the closest things to Abominable Snowmen that we encountered. Mr. M also spotted a marmot running across one of the alpine meadows.
As we chugged upwards toward Gornergrat, the landscape became rocky and barren, with patches of ice and snow. The peak is over 10,000 feet above sea level, and the altitude was really noticeable when we got off the train and hiked upwards to the viewing platform at the peak. Walking a path that I normally would’ve been able to run was leaving me winded, with my heart pounding.
The viewing platform was cold and windy, and we could watch thick fog blowing across the peak. For all their fur, the St. Bernards are apparently a delicate breed, as they had closed up shop on the photo op. In fact, although Gornergrat is normally considered one of the finest viewpoints in all of Switzerland, we weren’t able to see far beyond the beautiful Gornergletscher glacier below. On the upside, we had the station pretty much all to ourselves!
Brochure pictures showed the Matterhorn looming huge over the train, but we couldn’t see a thing. The peak of Gornergrat had rope lines leading back down to the station so that you’d be able to follow the rope lines back to shelter if you were caught in a snowstorm- after seeing the conditions that day, it seemed like a good idea! Despite missing the view and my cheesy St. Bernards, it was wild to be somewhere so barren and stark- I could almost imagine that we were mountaineering adventurers!
After being sufficiently chilled on the peak, we opted to take the railway halfway down to Riffelalp, then hike the rest of the way down. The hike was stunning: past waterfalls, wooden bridges, meadows filled with wildflowers, and old wooden chalets.
Two hours later, we were back in Zermatt and decided we had earned a snack of Zwetschgenfladen (plum tart made infinitely better by a fabulous name). Mmmm.
Full and lazy, and having spied the stunning outdoor set-up in our hotel, Mr. M & I knew we had to take advantage.
Mr. M and I lazed about in the deck Jacuzzi overlooking the Matterhorn (well… the foggy base of the Matterhorn… still no visible peak), then headed to the indoor pool downstairs and directly underneath the lobby. We were surprised to find that more than a pool, it was pretty much a full spa complex- that we had all to ourselves! Score! I was determined to try everything, from steam room to sauna to cold dip (yikes!!) to what was known as… get ready for the awesomeness… “The Dream Shower.” Wow. Just… time blast from the 1980’s Wow. Rainbow LED lights in the ceiling ‘dance’ to various shower settings: mountain rain dropping from the whole ceiling… warm fog that felt like a really good version of the misters that keep supermarket produce dewy… a heavy stream of glacier water that was NOT appreciated without advance warning… and the final massage, which shot water out from jets around the shower’s perimeter. After being assaulted with glacier water (not my personal shower dream, just sayin), I lounged about partaking of the complementary mint tea and dates and generally felt like some sort of Turkish princess. And then, in the corner, I saw the entrance to the hamam.
I’ve been wanting to try a traditional Turkish hamam (bath ritual) for a really long time. Luckily, there were posted instructions on how to enjoy the baths or I might’ve been a bit confused. Rule #1: no bathing suits. Because it was a unisex hamam, they provided white linen cloths in which to wrap yourself… but I can confirm what every spring breaker already knows: when white gets wet, you’ve found yourself in the middle of a wet t-shirt contest. I was all by myself, but if you’re with a crowd, make sure you’re comfortable giving a little show. :) After a sauna to open the pores, a body scrub in the open shower, a lounge on the hot rocks in the middle of the hamam, and a final dip in the soothing turquoise pool, I was pretty darn relaxed. I had no idea the afternoon would end up being an impromptu spa day!
For dinner, Mr. M and I wanted to try fondue. The local specialty in the Valais region of Switzerland is a dish called raclette- oven-melted cheese served with pickles, onions, and potatoes. Even though we still couldn’t see the peak (as it had been raining and even thunderstorming all day), it was unbelievable to know we were enjoying fondue right under the Matterhorn.
This trip is fast on its way to becoming one of my favorites.
Explore my previous day’s 40+hr adventure getting to know Lucerne, Switzerland
Details of the Day:
Accommodation: The Coeur des Alpes is the absolute coolest hotel we’ve ever visited. Sometimes it’s just fun to feel cooler than you actually are. They have a-MA-zing suites, but we were all too happy to pay much cheaper prices for a tiny double room (honestly, the rates are on the lower end of non-hostel accommodations in Zermatt). To call the breakfast buffet ‘extensive’ is a gross understatement. Aside from pancakes or waffles, which really aren’t a component of European breakfasts, I couldn’t imagine another single item I could possibly want that wasn’t already in that buffet. Also, as a cherry on top, the hosts are unbelievably gracious.
The hike from Gornergrat to Riffelalp (peak to halfway down) is 2.5-3hrs and extremely steep. For an easier go, try hiking from Riffelalp back down to Zermatt (1.5hr). It’s not difficult, but it is downhill the entire way. Mr. M reported that his knees “felt it” the following morning. I promptly made fun of him for being an old man.
Eats: Whympers-tube along the Bahnhofstrasse is a cozy little wood-paneled restaurant specializing in fondue and Swiss specialties. Really yummy and surprisingly reasonable for the gut-busting dinner we got.
Tips & Tricks: Our host told us the level of fog we had during our stay was unusual for any length of time. If seeing the actual peak of the Matterhorn (and not just the Matter-half, like we saw) is super important to you, plan to stay in Zermatt for at least 3 days to increase your chances of at least one clear shot.