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Finding Swiss Bliss in Zermatt

In the shadow of the Matterhorn, the nation's famous precision meets breathtaking Alpine beauty

July 21, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZERMATT, Switzerland — If the Swiss ran the world, trains and planes would be on time. Every hotel room would have a view, and reservations would never be lost. Communicating would be easy because the Swiss seem able to speak whatever language you greet them in. You would never have a bad meal. In fact, nothing bad would ever happen.

To the casual observer, the Swiss run their country with a by-the-book precision that is no empty cliche, as I discovered last month spending a week in Zermatt, a mile-high village in the heart of the Alps. A winter skiing center so close to Italy that you can get there by lift, Zermatt is wedged between mountains at the end of a deeply cut valley, with the fabled Matterhorn looming to the southwest, solitary and singular. In summer when the snow melts and the wildflowers bloom, it is a classic Alpine postcard of a place, cozy, traditional, family oriented, right out of "Heidi."

Just getting there is a sightseer's delight and a lesson in Swiss managerial expertise. I flew to Zurich airport, which has a railway station. A ticket clerk confirmed the schedule I found on the Internet before leaving home, complete with the train and track numbers for my two connections to Zermatt.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 28, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Switzerland photo--A picture of the Gornergrat railway station accompanying a cover story on Switzerland ("Finding Swiss Bliss in Zermatt," July 21) was printed in reverse. A correct view would show the Matterhorn peak slightly to the left, not right, of the photo's center.

The last leg of the six-hour train trip was on a trunk line that follows the cloudy, glacier-fed Vispa River, hugging the mountainsides, crossing and recrossing the waterway like a high-strung filly. There is a road through the valley as well. But cars are allowed only as far as the hamlet of Tasch, about five miles north of Zermatt, where drivers must leave their vehicles and continue by train or electric taxi, which is a little like a golf cart.

Horse-drawn carriages and whining electric cabs wait outside the train station in Zermatt to take arrivals to their hotels, most of which are Alpine chalets with balconies and flower boxes, the models for the phony ones you see in tourist traps. Then you look up and gasp as you see the Matterhorn, too boldly sculpted and invincible to seem hackneyed. You find yourself repeatedly going to the window to make sure it's still there.

My room at the immaculate Hotel Biner, where I stayed the first two nights, had a balcony with a view across Zermatt's vegetable gardens and slate roofs to the Matterhorn. I had booked a double for $145, including breakfast, but when I arrived, the front-desk clerk said I should take a single for $66. It wasn't the money; it was as though he felt it only right that a solo traveler stay in a single room.

I loved the view and the orderliness of the room, which had simple pine furniture, a single bed covered with a duvet and a full bath with faucets that took me awhile to figure out. The breakfast buffet was a typically Swiss fortifying feast: muesli, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts, cheese, rye bread, pastry and good, strong coffee.

During my first evening stroll, I quickly discovered that this village of 5,600 isn't as small as it seems, sprawling up the sides of the valley. Cranes were poised over the central square where a hotel conference center is being built, and Bahnhofstrasse, the main artery, has Benetton, Patagonia, a Swatch outlet, myriad outdoors outfitters and kitschy souvenir shops where tourists buy Swiss Army knives.

Bahnhofstrasse is intersected by winding alleyways lined with old-fashioned larchwood storehouses and stables. Chalkboards outside restaurants advertise traditional Swiss fare: fondue, raclette (a melted cheese dish), rosti (like hash brown potatoes). The signs are in German, which predominates in Zermatt although the village is near the French-speaking section of Switzerland and just across the mountains from Italy.

In the mornings it is clear why people come to Zermatt in the summer. There is skiing at high altitudes, where snow always clings to the mountains. It is also a mountain walker's paradise, where the risks are few and the pleasures of the scenery great. They come out after breakfast with rucksacks and walking sticks and head toward paths that lead to meadow-encircled hamlets with lonely little chapels, then upward to tundra, Alpine lakes, scree, snow and ice.

The mountains nearby look as steep and forbidding as the Grand Tetons of Wyoming or the Canadian Rockies. But the hand of man has made them extraordinarily accessible by a network of railways, ski lifts and cable cars, including the highest in Europe, which terminates at 12,533 feet near the top of the Klein (or Little) Matterhorn. Sightseers can take an aerial cableway or train into the mountains and walk back to the village, downhill all the way.

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