With Geneva, Sion and Zurich just a couple of hours flying time from the UK Switzerland has never been more accessible for a long weekend, but holding position in the deep south, straddling the Italian border, Zermatt is probably the most isolated "honeypot" in the Alps. Even with the wonders of the Swiss railway system you're looking at 3 to 4 hours from Geneva and Zurich; and with Zermatt itself being car-free the train is the logical choice.
You can split the journey from Zurich to Zermatt into two distinct parts, the first part from the airport to Visp aboard immaculate double-decker inter-city trains and the second part on the famous Matterhorn Gottard Bahn into the mountains. The narrow-guage, cog railway, ride from Visp climbs 1000 metres up the deepest valley in Switzerland and in typical Swiss style the train windows can be lowered to almost half height to allow photographers to get an unimpeded view. Between Tasch, where the train fills with car drivers who've reached the end of the road, and Zermatt you get your first glimpse of the Matterhorn.
Arriving in Zermatt is unique. Whilst the likes of Riederalp and Bettmeralp are well known as car-free resorts Zermatt is on a different scale. The noise, or lack of it, and clean air hit you instantly. With no cars the town runs on electric vehicles; electric buses, electric taxis, even electric police cars.
Zermatt town and getting around:
The majority of the hotels in Zermatt operate a shuttle service from the railway station for arrivals and drop offs but in between your choices are eBus, eTaxi, bike or foot. An eTaxi will set you back £20 to £25 but with mostly free buses connecting to the main ski-lift stations and a compact town centre most places can be reached in a 20 minute walk. Be aware, though, that if you're outside the flat town centre the roads can can sharp and steep!
The town is centred around the twin railway stations of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn and the Gornergrat Bahn and at first glance looks like the archetypal Swiss tourist resort - a mix of souvenir shops, restaurants and watch shops lining the main street, but with an increasing English influence the more you explore. It was the influx of wealthy English climbers in the Golden Age of Mountaineering 150 years ago that first popularised the sleepy village as they competed for the first ascents of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks. The era is remembered in the Mountaineers' Cemetery where memorials stand to some of the iconic names of mountaineering history and the "Grave of the Unknown Climber".
Memorials to Michel Croz and Peter Taugwalder (father and son) who died on the descent from the summit of the Matterhorn following Whymper's famous first ascent
By the time you've reached the Mountaineer's Cemetery you've also reached one of the best viewpoints in town for photographing the Matterhorn with an almost unimpeded view from the bridge over the Vispa.
When it comes to eating and drinking - well you're on the border with Italy so if you want a break from the traditional raclette, fondue and rosti (though I'm not sure why you would be) you can't beat fresh, hand-made, pasta and pizzas. If your tastes are more eclectic you'll find Japanese, Mexican, Korean, French, Thai....you get the idea. Zermatt really does welcome the world. It won't be cheap but it will be good!
What to do:
In winter the population of Zermatt explodes from around 6,000 to 30,000 but between the end of the summer holidays and the start of the main ski season (Zermatt actually has year-round skiing) you can benefit from lower prices and almost non-existant queues. While there's skiing at the high-level Matterhorn Glacier Paradise all year round, Zermatt has been heavily investing in mountain biking as an alternative for summer and autumn months. The lifts and gondolas that ferry skiers to Kleine Matterhorn, Gornergrat and Rothorn in winter allow mountain bikers and hikers access to high trails and spectacular downhills.
The day starts early in Zermatt and by 8am the shops are open. Breafasted at the Zermatt International YHA ,which provided my base for the trip, a short, steep, walk found me at the hire shop meeting my morning mountain bike guide for the morning's adventures. Of course a guide isn't mandatory but given I'm no mountain biker it was invaluable. Yes there's an ever increasing number of purpose built beginner's downhill trails but there's some serious singletracks up to World Cup standard too - and believe me you wouldn't want to find yourself on the wrong trail unless you like a lot of walking and carrying!
Taking the cable-car from the Schwarzsee base station you can easily fit a pair of bikes and riders in each car and with no queues we were at Furi in no time. Away from Zermatt itself the Matterhorn provided a classic backdrop on what's a short but enjoyable 250m descent. With alternatives to the steepr parts, wide expanses and easy escapes the descent back to the base station is the ideal way to familiarise yourself with features like brakes, gears, and drop-seats. While, in common with many singletracks in Zermatt, the route has been designed to allow fast water run-off to evoid excessive erosion it's by no means sanitised and falling off is a very real proposition!
With a couple of descents from Furi under my belt the third run took us up beyond our previous start point to Schwarzsee, a classic spot in its own rights. At 2,583m it's a good 700+ metres higher than Furi and a 960m descent to Zermatt. Shwarzsee is the starting point for the classic route up the Matterhorn via the Hornli Hut and in winter gives open access to the pistes, but it's also being developed for mountain biking. Where once downhillers shared hikers trails the infrastructure is now being put in place specifically for mountain bikers. Channels are installed to remove water and corners are cambered to avoid erosion on the descent while on some of the higher-end trails trees are padded to reduce the chance of serious injury.
The singletrack descent from Schwarzsee is newbie Nirvana, enough to keep your mind focused from the minute you leave the cable car station to arrival in Zermatt. The trail flows more than the descent from Furi but with the flow comes an increase in technical moves. Drops are a little steeper, bumps a little bumpier. It's enough to hold your attention totally, enough to push you and leave you feeling like you've done something by the time you reach the restaurant part way down.
The start of the Hobbit Trail from Schwarzsee
With three hours in my legs and a more gentle final section mostly on tarmac ahead a coffee at Stafelalp was more than welcome. It's strange how the idea of a restaurant half way up a mountain would fill me with horror in the UK but how welcome and popular they are in Switzerland, France and Austria.
Arriving at 11am we had the place to ourselves - no queues, no waiting, just a quick cappuccino boost for the final leg into town. A final section of narrow track, with a pedestrians crossing point, leads onto tarmacked roads and a more leisurely return to the hire shop.
With a degree of familiarity of balancing on two wheels the afternoon was the classic descent from Blauherd to Sunnegga base station - but only after a freshly made pizza in the centre of town. Starting at 2571m the Blauherd to Sunnegga isn't far short of the descent from Schwarzee, but it's entirely different in nature. Sticking almost exlusively to well made, though large diameter gravel covered, tracks the route winds it's way from the bare rock of the mountainside serenly through the trees to emerge in Zermatt back by the Sunnegga station. The trail is signposted throughout for Kickbike use, an oversized push-scooter with brakes that's very popular at Swiss alpine resorts. For around £15 you can pick up a scooter and helmet at the Blauherd station and leave it at Sunnegga; the descent taking around 35 minutes non-stop or taken more leisurely utilising the frequent benches for breaks. As is customary on descents there's the mandatory restaurant to break your journey should you wish.
Day one had been packed and it hadn't passed without incident. While the afternoon was scheduled for a couple of hours in the Zermatt Forest Fun Park tackling the high-ropes course and ziplines a fall on the trail from Schwarzsee, compounded by a suspesion-free descent to Sunnegga meant my wrist was in no condition to hold onto much more than a camera.
The Forest Fun park combines cargo nets, zip lines, tree climbs and parcours for anyone from the age of 4 and can be reached easily from Zermatt by following the road alongside the far sie of the River Vista for about 30 minutes.
The morning of Day Two started spectacularly with a return to Blauherd and onwards to the Rothorn station at 3,103m for a tandem paraglide with Air Taxi Zermatt. Again the lack of skiers meant a comfortable and queue-free ascent and the plateau greeted us with perfect conditions. From the Rothorn station you get totally uninterrupted views of the Matterhorn and Weisshorn and in summer it's the departure point for hiking trails both to the nearby Oberrothorn (3,415m) and down into Zermatt. Great trails they may be but nothing compares to a paragliding descent.
Above the dvelopments at ground level you get the most perfect view of the matterhorn from the best angle; from the Italian side it's more two-dimensional wheras from this side you get the classic 3D image used as the image on everything from Toblerone to souvenir hats.
With an unscheduled free afternoon, due to missing out on the Forest Fun Park, there was time to experience one of the most spectacular railway journeys in a country known for its spectacular railways. The 33 minute ascent to 3.089m was the world's first fully electric cog railway and gives hikers, bikers, skiers and tourists access to one of the finest viewpoints in the Alps. From Gornegrat station follow the short, but steep, path up to the hotel and observatory then onto the viewing platform at 3100m for uninterupted views of 29 mountains over 4000m.
From Monte Rosa to Kleine Matterhorn
An alternative to Gornergrat would have been a short train journey from Zermatt back down the valley to Randa for a walk on the Europaweg from Grächen to Zermatt, taking in the stunning Charles Kuonen suspension bridge across the valley
Photo: Zermatt Tourism
or an afternoon at 3,883m on the year-round ski slopes of Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.
Photo: Zermatt Tourism
With a lunchtime departure scheduled, the last morning brought rain to Zermatt and a bank of cloud descending on the town. The Matterhorn Museum in town provided distraction until the train beckoned for the return to Zermatt. In more co-operative conditions there would have been time to return on the Gornergrat railway to Rotenboden where a short walk leads to the classic viewpoint at Riffelsee where the reflection of the Matterhorn attracts photographers from around the world.
Photo: Zermatt Tourism © Kurt Müller
There's no getting away from two facts about Zermatt as a long weekend destination in autumn: it's not cheap and a fair chunk of your 3 days will be taken up getting there and back. If you live in London you can save at least an hour travel time by flying to Sion, just down the valley from Visp, but travel will still eat into your time.
Despite the time limitations there's no getting away from the fact that Zermatt is going to give you unique moments. The Matterhorn is probably the most iconic image of a mountain in the world and the experience of a car-free environment is enlightening. If you're looking for adventure to fill your weekend you the world's longest pedestrian suspension bridge via a 4-5 hour round trip, paragliding from the Rothorn, sking on the highest pistes in the Alps and enough mountain biking trails to keep you riding for a week. You've got culture and cuisine, history and a society that recognises what its assets are are protects them. Above all, though, you've got scenery and views that will live with you for ever.