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A Slice of Switzerland - 2 Days in Zermatt
Spending a day in Geneva on our first visit to Switzerland left us wanting more, so we took an early morning train to Zermatt (change at Visp on the Lausanne/Berg line) to see a larger slice of Switzerland.
The little alpine village of Zermatt can only be reached by train. Until 1891, when the Visp to Zermatt railway line was opened, the only access to Zermatt from the outside world was via a mule track. The rail link woke the sleepy farming village up to modern tourism with quite a jolt.
The only vehicles you see here are the little electric vans – like the Ginabelle Hotel shuttle that met us at the station.
As I head out of the city and into the countryside on the train, the more I see of Switzerland – this tiny country deep in the heart of Europe – the more it lives up to my expectations. The journey yields acre after acre of beautiful vistas. The route is lined with towering mountains clothed with dark green larch trees punctuated by waterfalls tumbling down into icy torrents and mirrored lakes.
Occasionally, a castle pops into view – just like a fairytale. Sturdy wooden chalets with balconies brimming over with red and pink geraniums cluster in lush green pastures and cling to rolling hillsides.
Thanks to the ever reliable efficiency of Swiss trains, we spent a comfortable 4 hours or so admiring panoramic views as the train sped us to a safe arrival in Zermatt just in time for lunch.
The landscape can surely only be improved by exploring it on foot? It’s high time to get the hiking boots on and the walking poles out …
Day 1 -The 5 Lakes Hike
Turning left out of the Hotel Ginabelle and walking along the fast flowing stream of glacial meltwater, you soon reach the cable car station. Take the funicular up to Sunnegga and the cable car on up to Blauherd. From there, you can take a leisurely walk downhill back to Sunnegga past 5 mountain lakes, admiring mountain flowers and stunning views of the mighty Matterhorn as you go.
The 5 lakes – Stellisee, Grindjisee, Grunsee, Moosjisee and Leisee – take on different appearances depending on the weather. If you choose a fine day, you will be able to see the surrounding mountains mirrored in the lakes. The weather was mixed for our trip, but the scenery was stunning nonetheless.
The Blauherd Mountain Station gives you a great vantage point on the stunning mountain scenery and is the starting point for many of the hikes in this area.
If you are lucky, Stellisee is the lake that will give you a perfect reflection of the mighty Matterhorn if you are hiking in the right weather. If not, you will have to make do with admiring the cotton grass that grows around it.
Grindjisee and Grunsee lakes are good places for spotting alpine flora whilst Moosjisee is a classic example of a lake fed by sediment rich glacial meltwater and has the distinctive colour of glacial milk”.
If you are walking with children, aim to allow some extra time at Leisee lake to enjoy its adventure playground. There are some lovely wooden sun loungers there too where you can rest for a while and enjoy great views of the Matterhorn.
There is also a funicular you can take from Leisee to Sunnegga to shorten the walk a little if your feet are weary. We took a leisurely 5 hours over the walk. You could do it more quickly. – but what’s the rush?
There are plenty of other options for hikes in this area. Take a look at the link below to explore some of the other options.
Day 2 - Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise was so good that it deserves a post all of its own!
Flora and Fauna
You can’t miss the famous Zermatt Black Nosed Sheep as you make your way through the mountain pastures. With their big, shaggy, white wooly jumpers (perfectly adapted for the harsh alpine climate), black furry faces and intricate antlers, it’s pretty easy to see how the Valais Blacknose have acquired the accolade of being the world’s cutest sheep breed.
It’s a good job they wear bells so you can hear them coming on the trails – they expect you to move out of their way when they are making a run for it – after all – this is their land – not yours?!
The name Raclette derives from the French verb racler – to scrape off.
Shepherds & cowherders keeping their livestock in high pastures in the Summer months needed food that was easy to carry and would keep well. A large cheese was kept by fireside in the evenings. Bubbling cheese was then scraped off into a dish of potatoes, gherkins & whatever else was available. So that makes Raclette the Swiss equivalent of the Cornish pasty?!
A great place to try Raclette for yourself is Theodor’s Stuba in the centre of Zermatt. You can order a Tour de Wallis which has 3 Valais cheeses in a row each with matching sides.
Val de Bagnes – creamy/spicy – served with potatoes, gherkins and cocktail onions
Wallis 65 – strong – served with white bread and lingonberries
Aletsch – creamy/mild – served with potatoes, hot jalapeños and dried meat
You can’t spend very long in Switzerland without succumbing to the temptation of munching your own portion of the world famous triangular confectionery that is Toblerone.
Do you remember the clever Toblerone advertisement back in the 70’s? How can you resist?!
Toblerone was invented in 1908 in Bern by Theodor Tobler who had the bright idea of mixing honey with almond chocolate and nougat. Many believe that the concept was inspired by the famous peak of Matterhorn, but in fact it was a line of dancers at the Folies Bergères forming a pyramid at the end of the show that gave Theodor Tobler the idea for his USP.
Wine is expensive to produce in Switzerland and only 1% is exported. You can sample red Dôle or white Heida/Païen from the Valais region. It’s OK – but to be honest, I’ve tasted much better wines.
Even in the supermarket, an ordinary bottle of local wine costs around 12 CHF. On wine lists, expect to pay over 40 CHF a bottle. Even just a small a glass will be over 9 CHF. Order “open wine” by the glass in 1 dl / 2 dl. measures or a carafe of 3 dl or 5 dl – if you are feeling flush?!
Learning the Lingo
Maybe surprisingly, although it has its own currency, resolutely stays out of the EEC and was proudly neutral in the war (due to economic concessions) , Switzerland does not have its own language. Maybe as a result of the fact that it was once being covered by glaciers and only populated slowly from surrounding areas as they began to recede, this land-locked little country borrows its languages from the countries with whom it shares borders.
Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, each of which chooses the language that is spoken within it. There are 4 National languages: German (62.6%); French (22.9%); Italian (8.2% and Romansh (0.5%).
German, French, and Italian maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal Administration of the Swiss Confederation, while Romansh is used in dealings with people who speak it.
Swiss German is a fascinating language, with its own words and dialect effectively making it a different language from the High German spoken outside of Switzerland. German speakers from other countries find it difficult to understand Swiss Herman. The reverse, however, is not true: Swiss German speakers can communicate comfortably in High German.
Though not an officially recognized national language, nearly everyone in Switzerland speaks fluent English. Children are taught English and one or two other languages (on top of their native tongue) in school. The Swiss speak English so well that it is probably the most common language you’ll hear in big cities and more diverse cantons. So much so that you will have no need of a dictionary/phrase book.
Where we Stayed - Accommodation Review
Hotel La Ginabelle
The Hotel Ginabelle shuttle meets you at Zermatt station and carries you and your luggage the short 7 minutes to the hotel.
It has 3 restaurants: Fine Dining, Bistro and Melted. The fine dining restaurant was closed when we visited, but we sampled the other two and found them to be pretty good. Melted serves a selection of traditional Swiss specialties, including fondue and rösti.
The Ginabelle is a spa hotel. It has a rooftop infinity pool, inside and outside whirlpools, a steamroom and a sauna. You can also book all manner of spa treatments during your stay if you want to.
Live piano music (Wednesday night) made for a very enjoyable evening.
We chose to book a Comfort Room with a balcony and a view of the Matterhorn. Sometimes, all you need from a hotel is really a comfortable bed and a good nigh’s sleep. The balcony and view proved a very good move on this trip though.
This was the view from our room (124) at 6.30am in the morning, as the sun rose on the matterhorn. By the time the sun was out, the whole mountain shone a beautiful colour of gold.
You can take a very early train and see the mountain up close and take a hike to see the mountain at sunrise, but drinking a nice cup of tea and admiring it from the comfort of my own balcony with my feet up worked for me!
Glad I Packed
- A raincoat – the Matterhorn is subject to rapid weather changes.
- A fleece – it quickly gets cold as the altitude increases.
- Walking poles
The plug sockets in Switzerland look like none I have seen elsewhere in the world. You can plug in from almost any angle! Standard European 2 pin plugs will fit fine, but there are also other sockets with deep recesses where you need a different sort of plug. Good to know before you go.
Tips for Future Travellers
Swiss Travel Half Fare Card
A Half Fare Card is well worth the cost – even for a short stay. You can probably recover the cost even on your first journey. If you are heading to the mountains, then your Half Fare Card will also get you half price tickets on all the cable cars and funiculars too – it’s a no brainer.
2 Days in Zermatt - Is it Enough?
With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I would have spent 3 days in Zermatt rather than just 2. With another day at my disposal, I would have been able to explore the Gornergrat train, which I think would have been fun?
I might also have timed my visit to coincide with the annual Folk Festival (usually mid August).