Letter from Europe

The tourist gaze: Zermatt

Issue no. 2017/21

Picture above: Swiss style in Zermatt (photo © hidden europe).


There is more to Zermatt than the Matterhorn. hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner recalls an early morning walk in the Swiss village.

Dear fellow travellers

I cut down a small lane called Tempel, wondering whether it really leads to a temple of some sort. I soon see that it has evidently taken its name from the Anglican church which is perched on a hill at the far end of the street. The squat chapel has served generations of British skiers and mountaineers who have come to this remote community in the hills. St Peter's looks calm and welcoming in the dawn drizzle.

Retracing my route back down the steps from the church, I pause by a chalet with a heavy slate roof and an impossibly neat terrace. It turns out to be a restaurant. Most of the businesses in this village are brash and bold in proclaiming their identity. The Myoko - for that is its name - is restrained and discreet. A sign politely advises that "Our mission is to bring authentic Japanese cuisine to the Alpine village."

You have to hand it to the guys at Myoko. If that's their mission, then Zermatt is a good place to start. Back on the main street, even at this early hour, there are quite a few people around. The Japanese are the early risers in Zermatt. Dawn selfies in the drizzle. Photos of the window boxes, where the geraniums are looking perky after overnight rain. I skip puddles, wandering down Bahnhofstrasse from the Alpine Museum to the railway station.

Only slowly do I realise what is so very odd about Zermatt in this hour after dawn. Here is a sea of Asian faces. The surreal nature of the moment is accentuated by the propensity of the visitors to wear white surgical masks over their mouths. I suppose one cannot be too careful with clean mountain air. There are many groups and families, all remarkably wide awake and active for this early hour.

I oblige one group by taking a photo of them, a smiling group (no face masks) posing against the Monte Rosa Hotel, from where in 1865 Edward Whymper set forth to climb the Matterhorn. One picture leads to another. Smiles, geraniums and cloudy skies. I am happy; they are happy. A middle-aged man in the group tells me this is his third visit to Europe and the third time he has come to Zermatt.

"Zermatt autheeentic," he adds, lingering over that middle vowel as if it was a last lingering glimpse of the Matterhorn. Alpine chalets, window boxes and more geraniums. A view of the Matterhorn, in theory, but not on this rainy morning.

"Today we go to Glacier Paradise," explains the man. "Have you been often to Glacier Paradise?" he asks me. I feel quite inadequate as I explain that I am not a native of Zermatt and that, my visit being all too brief, I'll have to skip Glacier Paradise.

By seven in the morning, the rest of Zermatt is beginning to awake. While the Japanese visitors are industrious in photographing every corner of the village, the locals take it easy. A handful of elderly men meet for a smoke in the park by the English Quarter. A cleaner is sweeping out the Thai-Swiss takeaway ("fondue chinoise is our speciality" says the sign).

In the bright shop window of Fuchs, a young woman is carefully arranging various cakes. "Why not try our Choco-Matterhörnli?" she asks. I pass on the offer and walk on towards the Little Bar which advertises Fuller's London Pride and Matterhorn crêpes.

Le Cervin.... the Matterhorn. Call it what you will. This great pyramidal peak, 4478 metres high, is not as lofty as other peaks in the Alps. But the Matterhorn defines Zermatt. When I visited Zermatt a fortnight ago, the skies to the south of the village were forever shrouded in cloud. The Japanese visitors were disappointed. And so was I. Yet perhaps not seeing the Matterhorn was a blessing. The poor weather meant I focused on the village, a place which is surely one of the more unusual communities in Europe.

Nicky Gardner
(editor, hidden europe magazine)