6 March 2016

Schweiz, schnitzel und schnapps (From Geneva to Zermatt)

SFr22.00 for a 5½-minute taxi ride, however you look at it, is highway robbery - even for one taken at pre-dawn from our hotel in downtown Geneva to Gare de Cornavin, the city's central train station.  Had I known how frighteningly-efficient the Swiss rail system was, I'd probably only have left the hotel after sunup - a mere 20 minutes later - and in doing so saved myself SFr7.50 on the fare.  Mind you, for that kind of money, I could've gotten myself one of those humongous Swiss bratwursts and, with that, a meal proper.  But if I possess a virtue that I can harp about, punctuality would be it; it's just not in me to be late.  For anything.  More so when I had a train to catch.

Our route: Geneva (or Genf) - Visp - Zermatt

Thursday, April 10th, 2008.  It was our fifth day in Switzerland and after having spent the last four in beautiful Geneva, it was time to move on.  Eastwards to Zermatt to be precise.  As if for no other reason than to willingly expose ourselves to the biting early-morning cold on that open platform, we arrived at the train station a good hour before departure (see what I mean?) which was an utter waste of time...  and SFr 7.50!

Oi Len (in white) and her siblings; waiting for our train at Gare de Cornavin, Geneva

We were off to Visp that morning; and from there, change trains to Zermatt.  For the most part of our 2½-hour journey, the train traversed the northern shore of tranquil Lake Geneva which divides Switzerland to the north and France to the south.  The 126-mile route between Geneva and Visp offers visitors some of the most picturesque sightseeing to be found anywhere on the planet; believe me.  Quaint, lazy towns and villages, lush open country, deep, dramatic valleys, deep blue bodies of water... even a medieval castle or two (see tiled pics below); these were some of the things we saw en route.  And I'd sure as hell give an arm and leg to re-live the experience.

Some of the scenery as seen from on board the Geneva-Visp train

We arrived in Visp at late-morning; and from there, it's an hour-long uphill journey by cog wheel train to the alpine village of Zermatt.  Most people come to Zermatt for one reason - to see the Matterhorn.  So, no prizes for correctly guessing why we were going.  But to be fair, the area is also considered one of the skiing and hiking meccas of the world and, on this merit, draws hundreds of thousands of skiers and thrill-seekers to her doorstep year-round.

Beautiful village of Zermatt (photo courtesy of Google Images)

Zermatt is nestled in a deep valley; surrounded by deeply-scarped mountains and dominated by the Matterhorn to the south-west.  From the moment we stepped off the train, we immediately knew we'd arrived at a special place.  I mean, Oi Len and I were like "wow!".  The cobbled streets and horse-drawn carriages were novelties to us urban dwellers.  It was a bit like stepping back in time really.

Zermatt's main street - no cars, no buses, no noise

And then there's the quietness.  I mean it just hits you!  No cars, no motorbikes, no tour buses, no fumes.... no noise.  The entire village is a no-car zone - hence the serenity of the place and her refreshingly-fresh fresh air (man, that's a lot of fresh-es!).  The only means of public transport here come in the shape of horse-drawn carriages and electric taxis which are a bit like tuk-tuks.  Almost everyone - visitors and locals alike - are on foot;  giving the main thoroughfare a happy, bustling and comfortable atmosphere.  Oi Len and I were sold.

A bit of useful advice to all; as nearly all the land at the foot of the valley have long since been built-up, many of the lodgings here are situated on the surrounding mountain slopes - some as far as three-quarters of a mile (uphill, remember) from Zermatt's train station.  So do check the location of your pre-booked accommodation before you come.  If yours is located too far off (or far up) and you're not exactly travelling light, you might wanna take one o'those electric taxis to your hotel.  Mind you, I'm dispensing... (huh-huh-huh)... this piece of advice... (huh-huh-huh)... after having... (huh-huh)... learnt the hard way...

Our hostel in Zermatt - half a mile from the train station.... uphill!

The long, uphill climb from the village centre to our hostel

A quick word about lunch;  Oi Len and I had our first taste of chicken schnitzel in Zermatt and really liked it.  That, plus a glass of authentic Swiss schnapps, set us back SFr 20.00 which - although expensive by Malaysian standards - was pretty reasonable considering we were in  Switzerland's #1 tourist hotspot.  But I was still sore; that SFr 7.50 which I ought have saved on our taxi fare in Geneva earlier would've covered a third of our lunch tab that day!  We were after all on a "budget" budget... know what I mean?

 Chicken schnitzel for lunch

With our tummies filled to the brim, it was time to go see the mighty Matterhorn!  For the best views, visitors have to first ascend Mount Gornergrat (a ridge of the Pennine Alps) which - at 10,134 ft - is easily-accessible via the Gornergratbahn, a century-old 5½-mile rack railway from Zermatt to the peak.  Yes, the ascent was mightily slow but it gave us the most majestic of views of the village below, the ski fields beside and the mountains beyond.  Truly scenic stuff and worth every penny of the painfully-hefty SFr 72.00 ticket price (it's SFr 78.00 these days).  Oi Len and I have neither gone up a snow mountain nor ridden a funicular before; so more firsts for us there.

Oi Len (the taller one) and her sis (the other one) on Mt Gornergrat
with the Kölner Observatorium in the background

On reaching the station at the top of Mt Gornergrat, it's a brief elevator ride up to the Kölner Observatorium - and from there, a 5-minute uphill walk to the viewing plaza.  Oi Len decided to stay put at the station as she was experiencing vertigo (probably altitude sickness).  In truth, I felt kinda funny myself but pressed on nonetheless.  After all, wasn't the Matterhorn our raison d'etre for visiting Zermatt in the first place?  There was no turning back.  Not now.

When I reached the viewing plaza, I immediately looked in the direction where the Matterhorn was.  Errr... or rather should be.  Something's not right - where's the Matterhorn?  I checked my position again... removed my shades... rubbed my eyes... looked again... still no Matterhorn!  I looked to my right.  And left.  Then a full three-sixty.  Where on earth was the Matterhorn?!!  I mean, you don't just lose a mountain, do you?!!

I shot this pic from the viewing plaza; every peak was obscured by dense clouds

"Entschuldigen, Fräulein.... errr, wo ist das Matterhorn?", in whatever little German I could conjure up I asked a young blondie who obviously worked there.  She pointed towards the direction in which I was looking when I first came up and answered in perfect English, "It's over there but you can't see it now."

What... what... what do ya mean I can't see it now?!!,  I thought to myself.  "It's usually covered by clouds this time of the day, sir", she continued.  "But do you see that golden streak there?  That's a little bit of the north face reflected by the sun".  A li'l bit of the north face?!!  I didn't come all the way from Malaysia to see a li'l bit of the north face!  I wanna see the Matterhorn... the whole darn thing!  "The best viewing time's between nine and eleven in the morning.  But no guarantees."

I was gutted beyond words.  Looks like I'll just have to make do with a photograph with that "little bit of the north face" as backdrop, I told myself - but in a twisted turn of events, even that "little bit" had totally disappeared from view by the time I posed myself.  It felt like an A-bomb had just been dropped on me.  Utterly disappointed, I stayed another 20 minutes to take in the beautiful mountain scenery (all the time hoping the clouds would clear and even managed a reluctant smile for an otherwise rather meaningless pic) before making my way back down to the train station where Oi Len and her sister were waiting.  But at least I saw a glacier or four, I consoled myself.

At the viewing plaza on Mt Gornergrat.  The Matterhorn
would've been right behind me in the distance.

When we got back down to the village, the first thing I did was get myself a postcard of the Matterhorn as souvenir.  Sad; but given the circumstances, I suppose it was the next best thing.  We sure as hell won't be going back up the next morning as we were already booked on the Glacier Express for our onward journey to Luzern.  In any case, our budget didn't allow us the luxury of a second ascent up the Gornergrat - Matterhorn or not.

For the rest of the afternoon, we walked around the village and did a bit of window-shopping - basically just enjoying the unique alpine atmosphere and surrounding panorama.  Then it was back to our hostel just before sundown.

Oi Len and I on main street, Zermatt

Zermatt by night is gorgeous - absolutely picture postcard stuff.  Despite the light drizzle of snow (yes, snow in mid-spring!), we just had to go outside that evening and enjoy the views of the village from our elevated vantage point at the hostel.

The village of Zermatt by night as seen from our hostel
(photo courtesy of Google Images)

I recall telling Oi Len that evening that, given the opportunity, I'd love to return one day.  A day in Zermatt hardly affords visitors enough time to explore the village and her surrounds.  There's just so much to see and do here.  The missus and I fell in love with the place from the moment we stepped off the train - and justifiably so.  Zermatt is charming.... enchanting even; and I know of at least two people who are deeply enchanted by her natural beauty and special atmosphere - one of whom's writing this blog post now.

Glacier-fed river running through the village

Even in the relentless rush of our modern times, Zermatt (thankfully) has managed to retain her unspoilt natural landscapes and country traditions; and despite her immense popularity, it must be remembered that she is still only a village - cosmopolitan, open and friendly.  This is a place where people mingle happily on the main street - mercifully-free of cars - and simply have a jolly good time.  In short, Zermatt rejoices in an easy comradeship with her visitors - regardless of colour or creed.  The key is to take a deep breath when you arrive, switch off and cut loose... footloose... kick off your Sunday shoes....

But do remember to avoid those pre-dawn taxi rides on your way here - and save yourself some lunch money in the process.

As a final word, I wish to share with you an excerpt from a poetry I came across on the internet while writing this blog post.  It's entitled...
Zermatt Calling

Where the air is clear, the mountains bright;

Stars shine above, through the night;

Filled with promise, filled with hope,

A writer’s dream, to keep afloat.

A place of peace, where no one knows;

This lonely girl, no friends or foes;
Oh bold big mountain, you draw me in,
I return to you, again and again.

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