Saturday, February 12, 2011
The word "Switzerland" brings several things to mind: time-keeping, banking, fondue, Matterhorn. The first two define the the psyche, the second pair the heart. With that in mind, we left the former to embrace the latter.
Entrance to the town of Zermatt is by train is provided a privately owned rail company. Eurail passes do not apply. (Note to self: buy ticket before boarding.) Luckily, the conductor was understanding and we did not have to pay a penalty. The sun was out and the ride up the hill was beautiful.
I booked us at the Hotel Backstage based on the recommendation of... (I can't remember--additional note to self: take better notes). It's a work in progress. Our room was stylistically modern, with accents in teak and metal. The hotel service was impeccable, the location ideal, the breakfasts expansive, and the view of the Matterhorn..., virtually non-existent. That was not the hotel's fault: you cannot really see the mountain from "downtown" Zermatt.
So be it. We sucked up the luxury and hit the town, such as it is. The town of Zermatt is to Sun Valley pretty much whatever the hamlet at the base of Sun Valley Resort is to Sun Valley. Don't know the name of that town, but at least Zermatt is known for itself. Definitely not Whistler, which is a good thing.
On the first night we rented skates and did our best Torvil and Dean impression around the public open-air skating rink. It was a lesson in ankle strength and humility to turn meager circles around the little rugrats who grew up on snow tools. Maybe we'll join the local curling group next time. They had beer and flat shoes.
The next morning we opted for sledge-redux. Our taste of the local sport at our last stop whetted our appetites for further two-railed adventures. The Gonergrat Bahn is one of several ways up the mountains from Zermatt, and offers regular stops at the bottom and top of of the sledging run. Sledging in Switzerland is nothing like a happy winter sled ride in America. They take it seriously here. The sledge run is 2km long, with turns to rival a downhill ski run. I finally got the hang of the track and sledge when I started to think of it as a Formula 1 course: you have to set up for you next corner at least two corners prior. I was on a wild machine at the mercy of only gravity, steered only by leaning and boot-dragging. I crashed a lot, always eager to get back up on the deck and hurtle downward again. Kari had the sense of the thing from the beginning. I usually started first, but she was always waiting for me at the bottom, I covered with snow from crashing, she with the glow of successful completion; together we trudged back to the train for the ride to the top. Bruised in sensitive places, I cannot wait to ride again.
And oh by the way, the view of the Matterhorn from the top of the Gonergrat in unequaled. You look across the valley directly at the mountain. It is the best view of the Matterhorn as the Matterhorn. Although the Matterhorn is not the highest peak even in the region, it stands out strikingly, and from the top of the Gonergrat Bahn you will not find a more stunning vantage.
The next day I took to the slopes for some of the local skiing. They hadn't had snow in a couple of weeks, so the conditions weren't ideal. Unless you count the perfectly blue skies and abundant sun. February is the high season in Switzerland for ski vacations, and the gondolas were full. But once you got on the slopes it was not too bad. The skiing here (and anywhere in the Alps, I'm sure) must be crazy good when there has been recent snowfall. The skiing was limited to the groomers, especially on my shorties. Anything off the groomed runs was crunchy on top, very soft under. I made do. Bummer having to ski in the sun, with no (and I mean no) wind at altitude. Maybe next time it will be fogged in and howling. Like 7th Heaven seemingly every time I've been there.
I met Kari for lunch at the top of the Klein Matterhorn, where you can almost touch the mountain. I took a long run down the Italian side to Cervinia, then back up to the top and back home to Zermatt. Over 4k vertical meters in two runs. Not bad for a guy on 99cm skiboards.
Somewhere in there we sat down to some real Käsefondue at the Cafe du Pont in Zermatt. (The link is hosed, so look it up when you get to Zermatt. It is just past the marmot fountain in the old town.) The döner kebab 25m away is a good alternative if the cafe is full.
Off to the banana belt next: Locarno. No more Schweizerdeutsch, finally Italian, a language I can at least fake.