In Part 1: Trains, boats, a fierce storm atop Mount Pilatus… and this was just the beginning of the tour!
On our way to a boat ride that was part of the day’s transportation to Zermatt, the alpine city from which many mountaineers venture to tackle the Matterhorn, we bussed through the small village of Vegas, where once Russian composer Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff lived. The gentle one-hour 45-minute minute journey on Lake Lucerne aboard the Flüelen ferry began in Vitznau, which also has the oldest cogwheel train still running. Lake
Lucerne is about 20 miles long and over 1000 feet deep in spots.
This boat ride was one of Russ’ favorite parts of the trip. He thought the blue-green water beautiful and the pristine villages we temporarily stopped at reminded him of the villages in Norway that front fjords.
We disembarked at Flüelen and motor coached to Andermatt, a byway that is reinventing itself as a luxury ski resort area. At Andermatt, we board the day’s second major transportation component, the Glacial Express, a three-hour train ride that moves at a glacial pace. Opened in 1930 and now registered as a UNESCO site, the comfortable train ascends from 1,400-feet on regular tracks, then switches to cogwheel tracks to conclude the journey at Zermatt, one mile high.
To reach Andermatt, we drove through mountains, passed alongside rock cliffs, observing below us a stream of pale green rushing water. We saw stone foot bridges built in the 1200s, which were the only means of travel between Italy and Switzerland until the Gotthard Pass was opened. The 2,106-meter (nearly 7,000 feet) Gotthard Pass traverses the Saint-Gotthard Massif and connects southern and northern Switzerland. It lies between Airolo in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and the German-speaking canton of Uri. When Italy and Switzerland opened this pass, it led to expanded trade and wealth. Our coach ride along the mountainous terrain was enlightening as to how people have adapted to harsh winter hazards. The roadway sits mostly under a covered tunnel, open to the sides, which protects vehicles from avalanches that might block the road.
The Glacial Express is one of those must-do experiences to fully appreciate the way locals live. We saw small barns that look like oversized dollhouses in which a child could comfortably play. Air vents are built into the structures. Grass is mowed, then stored in them during the rainy season to dry out, which is then used to feed animals during the winter. I didn’t see any glaciers on our ascent to Zermatt, but the train’s guided tour broadcast through individual ear buds, relayed the legend of the Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps. In the 1600s, melting water from the glacier was flooding out residents. Allegedly, the Pope told them to pray the glacier would decrease to prevent the flooding. Every year, processions were led towards the glacier to pray. Now with global warming (yes, it is acknowledged here as real) rapidly decreasing the glacier, permission has been granted by the Pope to pray for it to grow again because of the necessity for that glacial melt to nurture crops and provide pure drinking water.
Zermatt is primarily a mountaineering and skiing hub. Even with all the tourism in the summer, there is little open past six pm other than restaurants. As you walk along the main street even in summer, tourists are in shorts, skiers heading up the mountains wear parkas and goggles, and mountaineers and bikers are outfitted in fitted waterproof pants and jackets.
Where we stayed:
Schlosshotel Zermatt is directly across from the Gornergratbahn train station. The rustic hotel is literally steps away from the main street through a narrow twisted passageway. Our room’s balcony gave us an unfettered view of the train station and an obstructed hint of the Matterhorn and other mountains. Because evenings are typically cool this high up, there no AC. The bathroom was quite modern, with a square-shaped white toilet and basin. The room’s wallpaper was a pretty embossed glossy paper.
What we saw:
Unless you plan to climb the Matterhorn on foot from Zermatt, the only way up for skiers and tourists is aboard the Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest open-air railway, which ends at the summit of the 10,000-foot high Gornergrat. From this rocky ridge, there are 29 alpine peaks visible on a clear day because they each top 13,000 feet. Only the Matterhorn stands taller, at 14,900 feet. Our enthusiastic group of 24, guided by Tour Director Chris, arrived early morning before the crowds captured all the best spots for photos and before clouds typically roll in. We were fortunate. The morning was clear and crisp. Amazing that even with temperatures in the 40s to low 50s that high up, the sun still warmed. Jackets were unzipped. Neck scarves were loosened or removed. We had hours of unobstructed views of the Matterhorn in all its legendary glory. At the top of Gornergrat are viewing platforms at different heights and 3100 Kulmhotel, the highest elevation in Europe for a hotel.
Tips for making your trip up to Gornergrat more successful. Sit on the right side for the trip up. The windows can lower and the approach to the Matterhorn had everyone vying for a spot to take photographs. Hang onto your ticket. It’s necessary to exit and enter at each stop. There are four major stations along the route. First is Findelbach. You could walk back down to Zermatt from there, but the descent is quite steep. If you choose to do that, be prepared with hiking boots and walking sticks. Second is Riffelalp, which has a hotel and a short walk beyond that, the Alphitta restaurant, where we paused on our way down the mountain for hours longer than intended. (see Where and what we ate and drank:) Skiers depart the train at Roffelberg, but if you just want to possibly see some marmots or goats, this is the place. The last stop before reaching the top of Gornergrat is Rotenboden. The scenery is sublime from your very safe perch. Picture-taking is all but mandatory.
What we learned:
Zermatt is eco-friendly. Only electric cars, about the size of a large golf cart or longer for local shuttles, are allowed. Zermatt’s focus is all about tourism, whether from skiers and mountain climbers to summer visitors who come to gaze upon the Matterhorn.
Shops are typically closed from noon to 2 pm.
The largest group of Portuguese outside of Portugal live in Zermatt.
Less than 500 have successfully made climbed the Matterhorn. Just beyond the city’s edge is the Mountaineer’s Cemetery. Open to the public, there are graves marking at least 50 climbers who were unsuccessful. Most are from the 19th century, some from the 20th. The cemetery contains the graves of two famous climbers from the first successful ascent: Peter and Peter Taugwalder, father and son. (Yes, they had the same name.) They were part of a six-person team guiding Edward Whymper. Only the Taugwalders and Whymper returned safely from their July 14, 1865 climb on the north side of the Matterhorn.
The city of Brig, located between Lucerne and Zermatt, is known for apricots. Apricots, we discovered, are popularly used in many breads and desserts throughout the immediate area. Brig is also the site of the world’s longest railway tunnel from 1906 until 1982.
Canton of Valais is the largest wine growing region of Switzerland. There are roughly 22,000 vineyards. Swiss wine is rarely exported.
On this trip, we weren’t visiting Bern, the country’s capital, but we did learn that the cover of Toblerone chocolate is only produced in that city and that the cover of the candy bar has a picture of the Matterhorn with a negative image of a bear on it. The bear is the symbol for Bern. The candy bar is pyramid-shaped because it represents the Matterhorn.
Where and what we ate and drank:
If you were alive in the 1960s and 1970s, fondue pots were de rigueur in most everyone’s homes. Fondue pots then were metal and sat over Sterno, though originally the pots were cast iron. Though I still enjoy dining at fondue restaurants in the U.S, I found it fascinating how different our system is from its Swiss origins. Back then, Swiss winters were harsh and food supplies were scarce. Cheeses turned hard so to make it palatable, cooks combined gruyere, Ementhal and maybe some white wine in a pot to melt. Then they’d dip some dry bread in to eat. With all that in mind, I was eager to eat at Swiss Chalet Restaurant for our group meal. My conclusion: give me an Americanized fondue restaurant over an authentic one if our “dinner” was any indication.
The meal began with a family platter containing a small amount of mixed salad, with dried beef, pickles and pickled onions. Cheese fondue was served with bits of dried bread to skewer into the mixture. Then we were served a plate consisting of two small baked potatoes, a gherkin, a small pickled onion, and a bit of raclette, which is a semi-hard cheese that has been melted and then scraped off the pan. Tastes much better than it sounds. None of us realized this was our “dinner,” so even though the plates were replenished, how much melted cheese, potato and pickle can one eat? Chris jokingly informed us of fondue etiquette. If you drop the bread in the pot, you either have to buy a round of drinks or you kiss the person to the right. We laughed because not having the bread slide off the skewer was a challenge we all failed.
I saved room for the promised chocolate fondue. I’ve indulged in a good many pots of chocolate fondue. This was the poorest example I’ve had. Instead of being a rich, creamy mixture of chocolates (and maybe laced with some alcohol), this tasted like a can of chocolate syrup had been poured into the pot and warmed. The chunks of fruits were okay, but the syrupy chocolate was sparse and trying to get more proved frustratingly slow. The restaurant was bursting at the seams with diners and seriously understaffed, so I understood but still… The restaurant’s chalet atmosphere was charming. Wood covered pretty much every part of wall, ceiling or furniture in either panels or shingles. A floor-to-ceiling pole in the center of the restaurant featured German polka band figurines with Christmas twinkle lights wrapped around the pole. Very festive. There were multiple dining rooms as well as seating outside.
Alphitta Restaurant – All it took was for Chris to say the proprietors of Alphitta were friends of his, the food was great, and you’ll get magnificent views of the Matterhorn while sitting on the outside deck. Those were reason enough for nearly all of our group to stop there for lunch after exploring the top of Gornergrat. My husband, Russ, and I arrived later than most and by then, a picnic table right on the edge of the expansive wooden deck was available. I can’t imagine we could have been any closer to the Matterhorn or seen it more clearly than if we’d made the actual climb. The phrase “breathtaking views” is overused in routine marketing materials for rooftop bars and mountaintop hotels, but in this instance, breathtaking views is almost an understatement. Not only was the majesty of the Matterhorn in full display under the sparkling sun, robin’s egg blue sky barely tarnished by strands of clouds, but the surrounding fields were blanketed in colorful wild flowers that contrasted with small stubborn patches of snow. We were greeted warmly by restaurant owners Tanja, a tall Dutch blonde-haired woman who moved with attentive efficiency, and Dave, a jovial Irishman whose charm was exceeded only by his knowledge of wines and the history of the building. When the couple closes Alphitta for the summer season, they return to Italy where they own another restaurant.
We ordered two of the daily specials. Russ had the roasted pulled-beef sandwich with roasted potatoes and salad. I had roasted pork belly, roasted mixed vegetables, and Dave added a side salad. He then suggested a Nero d’Avola, considered one of the most important red wine grapes in Sicily. It is named after Avola in the far south of Sicily. It was an excellent choice. The lunch crowd thinned to a trickle. Russ and I asked about the restaurant’s history and Dave was only too happy to guide us. It was built with dark brown woods in 1869 by the Seiler family as a barn. In 1888, they converted it into a summer stone. A cast iron stove from that renovation still occupies space in the indoor dining room. Sheepskin furs warm benches, adding both a cozy touch and easier seating. The Seiler family is still prominent in the Zermatt area, owning not only the property on which Alphitta stands, but also three area luxurious hotels. We contemplated returning to Zermatt, until tour friends Carol and Bryan Moyer, joined us for wine and the restaurant’s specialty dessert: homemade apricot sorbet doused in the couple’s own apricot liquor. Let’s just say there was not a drop left.
In Part 3: A side trip to the beautiful Stresa, Italy from the lakefront community of Lugano, Switzerland, where a summery cruise followed the coastline to historic communities.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2019 – 2020 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the fourth consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady. Food photos for this series by Karen Kuzsel. All other Photos by Russ Wagner, a retired government planner/builder who has a passion for trains, travel and taking photographs.