Sunday, July 4, 2010
DF’s schedule in Switzerland has been a hectic one, with the seminars and the reading for the seminars, and … well, that’s pretty much it, actually. But to spend an entire three-week stretch in Zuerich alone without seeing any of the outlying areas would be a waste, so DF decided to devote one day to a trip to another Swiss area.
Which townlet to visit turned out to be an easy choice. Disneyland’s Matterhorn is one of the emblematic icons of DF’s beloved native SoCal. Trips to D-land as a tyke were always characterized by a contest designed to augment the delicious anticipation of the forthcoming trip: Who can spot the Matterhorn first?
Hence, DF planned a trip to Zermatt, located in southeasterly Switzerland, only a few miles from the Italian border, where the original Matterhorn is located. I got a ticket a few days early, being responsible and all that, and would certainly have done a spit-take had I had a beverage at the moment that the nice Swiss girl at the ticket counter quoted a price of $225 SFR for the round-trip ticket. As it happens, weekend travel is more expensive, Z-Faescht drives up prices further, and DF has no discounts available. This better be some damned good Matterhorn.
So: up early to catch a 9am train. Route: Zuerich to Visp via Bern, then from Visp to Zermatt. Total travel time about 3hr each way. I’d been warned off the voyage by some locals who stressed the long trip. But the length of the trip was actually part of what appealed to me. Train travel in Europe has often been a great pleasure. There’s something langorous and kinda romantic (non-sexually, obv.) about riding the rails through Europe, maybe getting a coffee and watching the countryside fly by.
Ahem. The key watchword in the above paragraph is “often,” and the second I boarded the train, I was reminded that train travel is not always a great pleasure, especially when the train is crowded and dirty and smelly, as it was during the leg from Zuerich to Berne. I found myself wedged at an angle into a tiny seat facing an old lady, right behind a group of five Swiss boys doing their compulsory year of military service. It was actually a pretty Swiss moment: the old lady was reading a paper in German, and the soldiers were nattering at each other in French until they drifted off, two of them slumping against each other in exhaustion. When I looked over I realized to my surprise that they were Swiss Italians (based on their names at least; “Dall’Agnolo” is the one that I remember), but you wouldn’t have known given the fluency of their French.
But then bit by bit the voyage improved. At Berne, more people exited than entered the train, and I got a big seat all to myself. Plus, the truly eye-watering BO smell that had dominated the area while the military dudes were there left with them, so I could start breathing through my nose again. Then at the transfer to Visp, things really took off. The train was as gorgeous as the one from Zurich was grotty. It had high ceilings with angled windows up high to afford views of the increasingly breathtaking Alpine landscape, and the air began to feel crisp and clear as we ascended the mountain railway to Zermatt.
Then, Zermatt itself: the town looks just like all those ersatz mountain villages you’ll see in the US, which are trying to cop an Alpine-resort feel, except that here, the aesthetic is authentic. Cars are verboten on even the main street, which leads up to the mountain region, and every building is named “Chalet” something or other. I stopped for a snack in a pub on the main road and sat for a while, watching the modest pedestrian traffic.
Well fortified, it was time for the ascent. Not of the Matterhorn, obv. The standard move is to take one of the hanging cable cars that bring you up the mountain and then walk down among the various picturesque paths. DF, though, decided to do it the hardcore way: walk up the hiking trails, and then descend in a cable car. And that’s exactly what I did, sweating and stalking up the steep-ass ascent (this about a year after breaking the tibia, which for what it’s worth, hurts much more on descents than ascents, to the extent it hurts, which is not really that much). It was aerobically challenging but not ridiculously so, and the walk from the base area to the cable car station at Furi took only about an hour, probably a bit less. Best of all, it wound up and around some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever goggled, the kind where you can’t quite believe how impressive it is, and all in the shadow of the Matterhorn, of course.
The Matterhorn, btw, was socked in with clouds when I first arrived, but eventually cleared up, and yeah, it looks pretty much exactly like its Anaheim simulacrum. The Swiss one is bigger, of course, but it lacks a rollercoaster, so I consider the comparison basically a wash.
Anyway: the hanging cable car (what on earth are these called? Sky-balls? They used to have versions of them at Disneyland between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, though those weren’t enclosed, which in retrospect seems really scary) swooped me back down into Zermatt. I wandered back into the city, where I checked out the very famous graveyard behind the church (the location of which I had to identify by describing it to a German girl who did not know what “graveyard” meant; so after trying it in French (“cimitiere”), I said “where they put dead people under the ground” and that seemed to do it). It’s famous because almost everyone buried there died while climbing one of the local mountains. Interestingly, the tombstones often detail the particular circumstances of the climber’s death, and some even include their climbing equipment as little memorials. It was sobering.
And speaking of sober, I then revisited the pub where I’d had lunch and watched Germany eviscerate Argentina in the company of a bunch of enthusiastic Swiss-German folks. I tried to cheer along when Germany scored all those goals, but my heart wasn’t in it; truth be told, I really wanted Argentina to win. It was fun, though—everyone booed whenever Maradona appeared on the screen, and after the game was over they played “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” really loud and we all sang along.
By then, twas almost nightfall, and DF caught the 6.39 train back to Visp, armed with a falafel sandwich and a Feldschloessen tallboy (the latter mostly because it’s so cool that you’re allowed to bring them onto trains). We sped back through the stereotypically Swiss-rural countryside (cows with disconcertingly loud cowbells, chalets a-poppin’, craggy Alpine wonderment, though sadly a dearth of yodeling), and then to Visp, and then DF slept most of the way from Berne to Z-town, and woke in time to navigate the chaos of ZuriFaescht and up to Rigiblick and home. Daytrip? Check and mate.
Finally, suggestion to local merchants: if you want to cash in on US tourists looking to bring a tacky souvenir back from your village, it’s an easy call. Just vend shirts saying, “Zermatt Makes Me Matterhorny” and you’ll make a mint. Can’t believe no one’s thought to do this yet.
1 Look familiar, anyone?
2. Zermatt town center--note dearth of any cars (not allowed in city limits)
3. Start of official M-horn hiking trail; religious iconography not reassuring
4. This is pretty much what it looked like all the way up; I had to stop
myself from going "wow" all the time
5. Slightly terrifying but mostly fun descent back to earth in suspended cable
car; any sense of height-fear palliated by faith in Swiss engineering skillz
6. Tombstones from graveyard for fallen climbers
7. Celebrating Germans at pub after 4-0 shellacking of Argentina; singing of
"Finale" to tune of "Volare"