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Switzerland is more than just snow-capped mountains. Here’s an exploration of sustainable tourism and child-friendly travel in the quaint town of Zermatt, coupled with the mighty splendour of the Matterhorn.
What does a couch-potato do in the Alps? Quiet a bit, it turns out. It began with the hunt for a destination with snow all-year round, and an Internet search came up with the town of Zermatt in Switzerland. Tickets and accommodation were booked a few months in advance– and then there was no respite from the daily grind to research the place further.
A grey, crisp October morning saw us in Zurich, our base to take a train to the mountains. For a traveller like me, accustomed to flamboyant Asian cities – quiet, understated Zurich, with its unassuming, helpful residents, was an unanticipated entity. It displayed none of the frantic consumerism you would expect from an international banking hub. Most of downtown was shut on Sunday, people used their smart phones intermittently rather than addictively, and oversized hoardings didn’t scream down at you along the main shopping street.
After a couple of days, we travelled to the town of Visp to board the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn– and spent the train journey gasping at vistas of the Swiss countryside. Something far better awaited us.
On reaching Zermatt, we walked from the train station to our accommodation. Narrow, traffic-free roads took us up and down amidst traditional wooden buildings with flowered balconies. In some parts of the town, these buildings are more than four hundred years old. When dusk sets in, and windows light up, Zermatt is an unexpected jewel of a town, flung seemingly carelessly across a valley. Grandly watching over this fairy tale setting is the superstar of the Alps, one of the most photographed peaks in the world, the 14,692 feet tall Matterhorn.
After an evening of oohing and aahing – the next day was upon us, and we couldn’t avoid a to-do list anymore. This writer counts walking as physical exercise and has a partner who isn’t fond of heights. Consequently, it seemed wise to start off with the most daunting activity – taking a cable car to the ‘Matterhorn Glacier Paradise’ on a 12,740 feet high peak referred to as Klein Matterhorn (‘Little’ Matterhorn).
Someone did see a notice somewhere that passengers experiencing discomfort could contact the operator, and a person in the know later told me that this cable car service had an excellent safety record – but we knew none of this when we stepped into the first car. Each cable car swung nonchalantly from side-to-side, ascending a few thousand feet before it stopped for us to change cars. With every lurch, my heart hit my boots. When I looked back at how high we were climbing, I prayed – I prayed that human engineering, which optimistically sought to conquer all – wouldn’t fail.
Valley of Sunnegga (Shilpa Pai Mizar)
I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that when I parted my eye-lids, I would be back on flat ground. It didn’t work. So I looked ahead – and gripped a railing in the car so hard, my knuckles turned purple. Up front, we seemed to be moving rapidly – and irrevocably, towards steep rock faces.
After a couple of changes, which all together constituted one of the rides of my life, I followed the family on wobbly knees, into a slippery ice-bound arcade which, thankfully, led to a nicely-warmed restaurant overlooking white slopes.
Fortified with French fries – we stepped out on to the snow. What a leap from the mundane to the ethereal! This writer has seen snow before. But then, it merely meant turning up the heat, dressing warmer, and taking a cab to work. However, standing high up on that slope – surrounded by endless horizons semi-obscured by snow – it dawns on one clearly, why people have for years, gambled with their lives to climb mountains or ski down them. Words are unnecessary.
Elevators take you to an observation platform, the views from which leave you awestruck. The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise also includes a glacier palace with amusements like tunnels to slide down, ice sculptures, and ice thrones to photograph yourself on. There is also a movie screen.
The ride down seemed more sedate and the next couple of days had us looking for less adventure. First came the valley of Sunnegga, called a children’s paradise. You get there by riding a fairly steep funicular railway. It takes you to one of the surrounding slopes, from which you descend into the valley using unmanned, glass-fronted elevators. We found ourselves in a pristine valley bathed in raw, golden sunlight, surrounded by elegant peaks –nature in all her self-assured splendour.
It is also gladdening to note that the ‘children’s paradise’ is unspoiled – no noisy rides and blinking machines – just a few shelters for picnickers, a play area with wooden equipment and a raft aided by a rope which kids can use to get across a small, clear pond. There are hiking trails around of varying degrees of difficulty. Zermatt also has a mascot called Wolli, a black nosed sheep who interacts with kids.
Matterhorn overlooks Zermatt (Praveen Ramachandra)
The town of Zermatt has been a tourist destination for more than a century. A conglomeration of a few villages, the community opened itself to tourists in a small manner in 1864. Today, it is a premium vacation spot where sheikhs and film stars holiday. Yet, Zermatt has taken care to remain a practical destination for families, with a well-stocked supermarket, pharmacies, and accommodation suitable to travellers with children.
More importantly, despite more than a hundred years of increasing tourist inflow, the mountain town has ensured that its growth goes hand-in-hand with conservation efforts and local prosperity. The car-free community has consistently won sustainability awards, and is a shareholder in local tourism ventures.
We wrapped up the trip with a ride on the Gornergrat Bahn – an eco-friendly railway that ascends more than four thousand feet, with typical picture postcard views along the way. At the summit of the Gornergrat ridge, we stood surrounded on all four sides by the wild beauty of the Alpine range. It was time to leave. There is just that much of a good thing you can take.
Pic credit: Image of Switzerland via Shutterstock
Freelance writer and editor - avidly interested in food, books and people. Is there anything else
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