The stunning Swiss Alps is the highlight of any visit to Switzerland as its pristine snow covered slopes appeal to both skiers and tourists alike. Amongst the numerous alpine resorts, we chose Zermatt as it offers one of the most varied forms of mountain transport and is overlooked by the Matterhorn – an iconic symbol of Switzerland. The map below shows the different attractions which we had visited during our short stay in Zermatt. (credits to Zermatt.ch Link for the map)
Being an alpine resort, accommodation in Zermatt is generally expensive although it was one of the few places in our trip where summer was considered as a lull season. We came across Hotel Tannenhof after we were unable to secure two rooms at Le Petit Hotel due to a delay in making our reservations. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Le Petit Hotel later cancelled all its reservations to carry out renovations during the summer season and we did not have to face the dilemma of settling for the next cheapest hotel (which charges twice the rate!) or stay at a cheap hostel which did not receive particularly favourable reviews (such as only having one toilet on the ground floor).
Located along Hinterdorfstrasse, the hotel is located in the oldest neighbourhood of Zermatt but the main street and other star attractions of the town are within walking distance.
The bulk of the hotels in Zermatt are not equipped with lifts and Hotel Tannenhof is no exception. The friendly propertior lent us a much needed hand with our luggage as we hauled our baggage up three steep flight of stairs to our room on the second floor (the first storey is referred to as the ground floor). The wood panelled rooms are clean and well-maintained with the warm lighting lending a cosy ambience to the room. In addition, one of the rooms also has a small balcony that overlooks a quiet street and offered a glimpse of the Alpine mountain range.
Breakfast was a simple affair and was served in a buffet style in the dining room on the ground floor. A continental breakfast with items such as croissants, cereals and bacon were offered and the propertior also provided a personal touch by offering freshly prepared pots of tea/coffee for each table.
A flat screen television set in the reception area provided weather updates and operational status at the different peaks and facilities (left).
Hotel Tannenhof eschews the modern card readers for the rooms and guests are issued with a key attached to a bulky keychain. An additional plastic RFID tag allows entry through the main door during the late hours of the evening. It is also interesting to note that the sugar packets also bear the Zermatt emblem which features the Matterhorn (right).
Klein Matterhorn & Matterhorn Glacial Paradise
The first destination for the day was to visit the Matterhorn Glacial Paradise which is located at Europe's highest cable car station at Klein Matterhorn. The cable car station is located at the southern end of the town and is a leisurely 15 min stroll from our hotel.
Matterhorn. One word says it all as we were instantly awed by the sight that greeted us the moment we reached the main road, Bahnhofstrasse. Standing at 4,478m above sea level, the iconic peak towered over the traditional Swiss wooden houses and the lush green slopes.
The Matterhorn Museum located near Hotel Zermatthof pays tribute to the past attempts made to conquer the Matterhorn. The first successful attempt was made by Edward Whymper in 1865 but not without a painful cost - 4 of his fellow climbers plunged to their death during the descent (top left).
Wolli the sheep is the official mascot of Zermatt and cut-outs of this adorable character can be found scattered the alpine town (top right).
Traditional handwritten direction signs in Zermatt (bottom)
Morning street scene along Oberdorfstrasse. Zermatt only has a resident population of 5,720 (as of Dec 2010) and half of the jobs in town in hotels or restaurants to support the local tourism industry.
The walk eventually brought us alongside River Vispa, where we took in views of the silky white water of the rapids and followed the signage to the cable car station across the river.
A giant information board at the entrance to the cable car station shows the operational status of the various mountain transportation and facilities. We noted that the second section of the main route to Klein Matterhorn was closed but an alternative was available via Schwarzsee Paradise. We were also rather thrilled at prospect of being to experience the -3°C temperature and 34km/h wind that was reported at our intended destination.
As with the other private mountain railways, Swiss Pass holders are able to enjoy a 50% discount on the usual adult fares for ZBAG operated routes. The first part of our ascent to Klein Matterhorn involved a ride in an aging Von Roll aerial tram from Zermatt (1620m) to Furi (1867m).
View of Zermatt from the aerial tram en route to Furi. Zermatt lies at the end of the Mattertal (Matter Valley) in the canton of Valais.
A Von Roll aerial tram descending from Furi to Zermatt with the Mattertal in the background. The aerial trams are adorned in a striking red and white livery to promote the Matterhorn Glacial Paradise which is located at Klein Matterhorn.
The next section of our ascent involved a 23 minute long cable car ride from Furi to Trockener Steg. New CWA cars are used on this sector, which had also been extended to complement the aerial tram service between Zermatt and Furi.
Different liveries on the Matterhorn Express CWA cable cars used on the Furi-Trockener Steg cableway.
View of the Swiss Alps shortly after leaving Furi (1867m) towards Mittelstation (2324m). The drop down windows installed on the sliding doors of the gondola allowed passengers to obtain photos of the surrounding scenery with ease.
We had our first close-up look at the Matterhorn near Schwarzsee Paradise (2583m). Schwarzsee lake also reportedly offers a postcard view of the Matterhorn's reflection in the lake but we decided to skip a stopover at this station due to time constraints.
After Schwarzsee Paradise, the cableway descended towards Furgg (2434m). At this point, there was a distinct change in the surrounding vegetation where the sparsely vegetated slopes soon gave way to the barren rocky slopes of the Alpine tundra.
In the last segment of the cable car ride, we were able to chance upon a glacial lake formed from the meltwater of the Oberer Theodulgletscher. Whilst shrouded in clouds, the Matterhorn provided a dramatic backdrop to the alpine landscape.
Trockener Steg is situated at an elevation of 2939m above sea level and is located at the edge of the snow line. Passengers can also transfer to the Furggsattel Gletscherbahn chairlift where the other end of the line ends within the borders of Italy.
The unmistakable form of the famed St Bernard dog immediately caught our attention as we stepped out of the cable car at Trockener Steg and its handler also wasted no time in trying to get us interested in a photo with his dog against the stunning alpine peaks for CHF10. He also proved to be rigid and inflexible when we offered to pay him directly to allow us to obtain a photo of the dog, as he cited that only the company's camera could be used to take a photo of us together with the dog, with the payment being made to his company at Zermatt upon collection of the photos. Eventually, he allowed us to obtain photos of the dog in exchange for payment that would be used to purchase food for the dog.
The cableway between Trockener Steg and Klein Matterhorn was delayed by both environmentalists and the citizens of Zermatt over various issues and construction only began in August 1976. The cableway was completed 3 years later and was opened in December 1979. Manufactured by CWA, the two 100 passenger gondolas used on the line had to be flown in from Täsch before they are attached to the hangar frames and hung onto the overhead track cables.
(Clockwise from left):-
The control panel of the CWA aerial tram. The cableway is manually operated and an onboard digital scale helped to ensure that the total load is within the safe operating limits.
The aerial tram at Trockener Steg station, which is also referred to as the valley station of the line.
The CWA aerial tram is capable of carrying 100 passengers and 1 operator with a total load of approximately 8080kg.
Passengers were treated to spectacular views of snow-covered peaks and glaciers during the journey. Unfortunately, it remained a challenge to obtain photos through the tinted glass as the cabin is not fitted with openable windows presumably due to the strong winds and low temperatures at that altitude.
Formed through centuries of snow accumulation, glaciers leave their indelible mark on the landscape as they carve through steep mountain valleys and stir the hearts of many a traveller.
The scenery became increasingly dramatic as the aerial tram proceeded into the steeper sections of the route. With only three supporting towers along the 3.7km long line, passengers had an unobstructed view of the Unt. Theodulgletscher which had remained frozen even in summer.
Approaching Klein Matterhorn station which also holds the distinction of being the highest cable car station in Europe at an elevation of 3820m. The construction of the station proved to be exceptionally challenging as workers had to battle extreme weather conditions and the thin atmosphere at the altitude. The concrete used to build the station had to be mixed with warm water and antifreeze before being transported by helicopters to the site in specially insulated tanks.
An access tunnel burrowed through the mountains linked the cable car station on the northern face to the ski area and Glacial Paradise located on the southern face of the peak.
A multitude of signs at Klein Matterhorn reminding skiers to keep to marked slopes due to the risk of crevasses and the real danger of altitude sickness. We however, did not feel any ill effects which might be as a result of having acclimatised during our hour long stay at Trockener Steg earlier.
The largest summer ski runs in Europe are located at Klein Matterhorn and skiers can choose from a variety of courses to match their individual skiing skills. The ski runs were closed on the day of our visit due to the presence of crevasses along the ski run along with poor visibility conditions.
The general volatility of weather in the mountains meant that the blue skies quickly gave way to an impenetrable gloom within moments as the low level clouds were swept in by the gusty winds. Visitors can also head up to an observation platform which offers views as far as the Mediterranean on a clear day.
After savouring the cold and the harsh biting winds, we decided to head back into the warmth of the enclosed area and had lunch at the restaurant which was co-located with the souvenir shop. At CHF18.50, the Rösti dish with cheese and bacon was cheaper than we had expected at such a location and the quality did not disappoint us either. Compared to the rösti we had at Mount Pilatus, it was not as dry, while the cheese and bacon resulted in a unique blend of taste and texture to the savoury dish.
The Matterhorn Glacier Palace is accessible by elevators leading to the entrance of the ice tunnel located 15 metres below the glacier surface. A series of ice tunnels and caverns had been carved out of the glacial and visitors are able to view the various ice sculptures that are scattered throughout the venue. Despite the lack of wind gusts in the glacial palace, we found it challenging to admire the exhibits in the bone numbing cold.
The ice sculptures in the glacial palace are changed every year and are based on a wide variety of themes.
Visitors who are not too keen on skiing down the perennial ski slopes can also experience a brief rush of adrenaline by sledging down an ice slide in the glacial palace.
The beauty of the large irregularly shaped ice crystals that line the surface of a natural crevasse were highlighted by several strategically located multi-coloured spotlamps.
Given our fair share of photos taken during the ascent in the morning, we only took a few photos on the way down and spent the bulk of the journey time admiring the views.
35.8 kilometers of track, hand and counter cables which weigh over 300 tonnes connect the Klein Matterhorn station with Trockener Steg. Shortly after breaking through the thick layer of fog, the Theodul Glacier stretched out below the cableway with Trockener Steg being faintly visible in the distance.
Approaching Trockener Steg station. Despite being described as a valley station for the final segment of the cableway route to Klein Matterhorn, Trockener Steg is in fact a minor peak in the Pennine Alps. The ski run visible at the bottom of the photo was created and sustained using a costly IDE Snowmaker which produces high quality artificial snow using a proprietary Vacuum Ice Maker (VIM) technology. This technology generates a high vacuum pressure to induce the triple point of water (where all 3 states of water co-exist) where an ice-water slurry is formed. Water is then extracted to produce man-made snow.
An interesting advertisement billboard at the ground floor of the cable car station. Pigs might not fly, but they could most definitely enjoy the spectacular alpine scenery from the comfort of a chairlift!
We chanced upon an electric bus while crossing the bridge from the cable car station, and jumped onboard to save us the hassle of walking to the Gornergrat Bahn station which is located at the other end of the town.
In a bid to maintain the pristine mountain air in the alpine town, Zermatt is demarcated as a car-free town and vehicles which run on combustion engines are also prohibited. As such, the local buses (E-bus) in the town are also operated by electric buses that are custom-built locally. The Green Line, or Linie Bergbahnen, provides a useful link from the bus stop located outside the depot near the cable car station to the town centre where the train stations for MGB and Gornergrat Bahn are located.
The basic interior of the E-bus is outfitted for the convenience of skiers who frequent the service. Bench seats provide ease of movement for skiers who are carrying bulking skiing equipment and the Jacob's plate flooring provide a non-slip surface even when slippery with melted snow and slush.
Being electric-powered, the bus sounded rather similar to some of the trolleybuses which we had ridden on before and the soft purr of the electric motor was largely being drowned out by the music from the onboard loudspeakers.
Next Post: Das Matterhorn II - Day 6 & 7
Interlaken's Twin Lakes - Day 5