Gina Baksa fulfils a childhood dream and visits the incomparable Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt
The Matterhorn. This most iconic of mountains was magical to me as a child. Magic mountain I called her. Fast forward a lifetime and I’m on the cog railway from Visp, heading up the mountain to Zermatt. A quick glimpse of her from the train and I’m in mild euphoria. A second sighting from the village itself and I can hardly breathe with excitement. There is something otherworldly about the Matterhorn that makes me feel insignificant yet alive. The power of nature can be intimidating and exciting in equal measure.
Europe’s highest ski area, car-free Zermatt offers 360km of pistes and guaranteed skiing year round thanks to its lofty peaks and the Theodul Glacier. Situated at 1608m, in a narrow two-mile valley at the foot of Switzerland’s highest peaks, the town is dominated by the Matterhorn which is just one of the 38 peaks over 4,000m that surround the town. You can even ski to Italy (Cervinia and Valtournenche). Zermatt is also delightfully car-free (leave your motor at Täsch 5km down the mountain), although you do have to listen out for the stealth-like electric vehicles that hurtle around carrying luggage and passengers. That aside, the resort when I arrive early January is quiet and peaceful, and cold. The sun at this time of the year doesn’t descend into the valley into late morning early afternoon. So I’m thankful for my thermals.
My lungs are breathing a sigh of relief too – 48 hours vacation from London smog. I can actually inhale and exhale on a full lung. Heaven. I hear Swiss, German, a smattering of English and there are many Chinese and Japanese tourists too. Incredibly the resort received 1.8 million visitors in 2016. Winter hiking, skiing, snowboarding, heli-skiing. skating, zip lining, climbing, curling… Or just sitting in a mountain restaurant – summer or winter and enjoying the stupendous views. Alternatively, take the various cable cars up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the highest viewing platform in the Alps at 3883m.
My hotel, the Chalet Hotel Schönegg, is a brisk five-minute walk via Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street. Designer watches, smart and traditional restaurants, cool bars, all far less pretentious than some other high end resorts I’ve visited. Valerie and Lars, my lovely guides from the Zermatt Tourist Office, take me via the Hinterdorf – the oldest part of Zermatt with its weathered chalet-style barns and houses. Originally built on platforms to ward off rodents, some are now B&B accommodation and holiday lets. Crossing the River Visp that runs icily along the valley, we arrive at an entrance to a Bond-like cave lair. ‘This is the tunnel to your hotel,” Lars reveals. And so it was… a beautifully lit cave that led to the lift to the hotel reception, high above the town.
The Swiss are renowned hoteliers and many establishments in Zermatt are still family owned. The beautiful Chalet Hotel Schönegg is a case in point. Now managed by charming Sebastian and Anna Metry, the third generation of the hotelier family, their grandparents Johann and Maria bought the original Schönegg in 1947. Fast forward to 2017 and the original house has long been demolished to make way for the new Chalet Hotel Schönegg and its beautiful Petit Chalet annex. A traditional chalet with modern flair, recent upgrades have included new floorings and bathrooms in the main house. The restaurant Uncorked has been refurbished this year, as well as the creation of a fabulous infinity bar-terrace with jaw-dropping views of the Matterhorn. Many rooms have wonderful views of the Matterhorn too – my room in the Petit Chalet annex included. A fabulous suite with textures of leather and wood, soft brown and cream colour palette and superb lighting. The bathroom wall was partly glazed which meant I could still see my magic mountain from the bath. Wood panelled walls, wooden floors, I felt like I was in my own private chalet.
I sank into the generous leather armchair and gazed at the Matterhorn and Zermatt below. I simply couldn’t imagine becoming tired of this view. Beauty beyond belief. It was late afternoon now and I decided to head for the Gornergrat – at a vertiginous 3098m. The delightful cog railway is situated opposite the main railway station. Heated carriages and panoramic windows providing an added bonus to the spectacular views on the 30-minute journey to the summit. The 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat and observatory are situated here too – and you can see 29 mountains from this vantage point – all over 4000m. As I watched the sun dip behind the Matterhorn, hot chocolate in hand, all felt right with the world. Nature is truly astounding. Our cog-wheeled descent into near dusk and swiftly dark was heralded by a rose-tinged hue on the opposite valley.
A quick soak in the Jacuzzi before dinner – views of twinkly-lit Zermatt below me – was heavenly. There’s a sauna here, a steam bath, and a wonderful relaxation area with waterbeds, which I had all to myself. Soothe sore muscles with one of the massages treatments: from deep tissue to lymph drainage, body peels to reflexology. If you’re a non-skier you could spend your day at the Schönegg enjoying a well-deserved pampering.
Mountain air makes you hungry. At least that was my excuse as I savoured a fabulous five-course dinner at the hotel’s Uncorked restaurant that evening. The food here is superb and very popular, so make a reservation. I enjoyed a fresh salad, followed by a creamy Cauliflower Vadouvan soup. Light, warming flavours which complemented the appetite cleanser of an apple-basil sorbet. The mains, a magical Valais-style paella, was inventive: Substituting rice for saffron barley, the chef had expertly prepared diced chicken, rabbit and lamb all succulently cooked alongside spicy sausage and beans. Dessert, after a significant pause, was a superb apricot crème brûlée.
An early night – cuisine and elevation had taken effect – meant sleep was deep and welcome, before an early next-day ski. Breakfasts at the Chalet Schönegg are generous: fruits, cereals, a host of cheeses and breads, yoghurts and hot dishes. You could easily spend all morning enjoying the best meal of the day looking out at the Matterhorn. However that magic mountain was calling. And Lars was waiting for me in reception. Time to get on the slopes!