When the ticket machine at Sion station flashed up with the price of our train tickets to Zermatt H and I nearly fell over. So for that matter did the ticket lady helping us, and she called over a colleague to double check. Swiss railways are really really expensive. And for the first part of our journey, meandering along the bottom of our valley, we couldn’t for the life of us see why.
Only when we got to Visp and changed to the Zermatt train, did it start to make a bit more sense. Visp for us was the border to the mountains, and the point at which the language changed. Switzerland has a small French speaking region in the south west corner, but as you head north or east there comes a point at which it changes to Swiss German. No border, no markers, no real rhyme or reason to give you a clue that it’s coming, you literally leave one station with the announcements in French and arrive at the next being welcomed in German. If changing countries, and currency, but not language had felt strange enough coming in from Annecy, that was nothing to how surreal it felt to be able to understand what was going on one minute and then be completely in the dark the next. I don’t speak German let alone Swiss German, though it’s amazing how much you find you know about the general operation of railway stations from years of commuting.
From Visp we were on the tourist train (which might explain the price hike), a smaller train, with bendy carriages and big big windows up the sides and into the roof. The Alpine shuttle is the only way to get to Zermatt, there are no cars, and while you can drive to the next station down the hill and just take the train for the last hop, we decided to take the train all the way so that H could have a chance to enjoy the scenery rather than concentrating manically on twisty bendy roads and it was definitely a good decision. We all peered upwards as the train wiggled itself along a tiny track perched on the side of the slopes, looking for our first glimpse of a proper snow capped mountain. There were steep slopes below, tunnels through rock and little wooden boxes that the train ran through, presumably at the points most likely to be hit by an avalanche in the winter, and with every stop the villages got more and more chocolate box; wooden chalets with brilliant red geraniums cascading from layer after layer of balcony. That would be the inspiration for next summer’s garden right there then.
The train climbed higher and higher and suddenly there was no doubt that the peaks had snow and we were nearly there.
Stepping off the train at Zermatt, the first thing we noticed was the bite in the air. It was about 5C so not ridiculously cold, but decidedly brisk compared to the mid twenties of the morning at Sion and we bundled the children into all of their jumpers and long sleeves. The second was that the air was crisp and cool and very very fresh.
We wandered up and down the main street, just taking in the prettiness of the buildings, all the geraniums, and enjoying window shopping the grockle shops. There’s no traffic in Zermatt, luggage and people are ferried around on little electric golf carts or the occasional horse drawn carriage, which made it the perfect place for exploring as a family. Eventually, down a side street, we found what I think is Zermatt’s football pitch and tennis courts combined and a very nice long wavy bench to stop for our picnic lunch while we eyed up all the different chalets and decided our favourites.
Sat in the sunshine, with mountains soaring around us was one of the moments when H and I looked at each other with a “can you believe we’re really here and really doing this!” expression.
Our afternoon’s adventure involved another train and, to be honest, another significant outlay of Swiss Francs. We took the rack railway from Zermatt up to the peak at Gornergrat, climbing steeply out of Zermatt as the train clung to the cogs on the track. Going up the first section we had the most incredible views down the valley and across to the far hills, some of whose snowy peaks still reflected sunshine.
We even saw a marmot by the side of the track, sitting up and eyeing us curiously. We’d seen a hundred stuffed animal imitations in the town below and I’d thought they must be the size of a hamster but they’re more like a small dog, and very cute with it. Only after we got back down to Zermatt did we hear that it was quite rare to see them by the railway so it was a real treat.
As the track climbed higher and higher we could see the cloud coming in and the start of the snow by the side of the track. In all of my imaginings of Switzerland or Zermatt or Gornergrat I never imagined that we’d get to touch the snow, just see it in the distance. And when we got out at Gornergrat and there was fresh untouched snow on the ground, well the girls were not the only ones who found it very exciting. My footwear, on the other hand, packed for summer camping in Northern France, left a little to be desired – chilly toes!
So there we stood, our little family of five, at the top of the highest peak I’ve ever been to in my life, straining through the cloud to see that view of the Matterhorn that adorns a thousand chocolate bars, and spotting only what might perhaps be a glacier or a lower slope, and it began to snow. Actual big fluttery flakes of snow falling on our heads, in summer.
It was the first time that Elma has seen a proper amount of snow since she was a teeny tiny newborn, the first time for Kitty in about as long, and the first time ever for Pip, who was decidedly unimpressed when everyone kept handing him lumps of cold and wet. The rest of us had a blast. And because it was snowing and the peak was shrouded in cloud we had the summit almost completely to ourselves, even if we did have to fill in most of the view by imagination.
One day we will go back to have a proper look, but I suspect it won’t quite be the same filled with people.
We adjourned to the cafe at the hotel for a little rest and refuel; up at Gornergrat I was very aware that the air was thinner and I could feel Pip breathing more deeply than usual as he snuggled up to me in the sling. And when we’d eaten some very good cake and a not worth bothering with croissant and we were absolutely sure we’d seen everything, we headed back down.
It being our last day in Switzerland there were a few Swiss Francs burning a hole in my pocket so we did a little shopping, wooden animals for Pip, a marmot and a St Bernard with a flask around its neck, a tiny cowbell to put on our Christmas tree, and a cheese board in the shape of the Matterhorn (practical for camping too!). But best of all we discovered Stephanie’s Crepes, tucked into a tiny shop on the main street. The ice cream is homemade on the premises and tastes amazing according to the girls, which is probably true give how little they were prepared to share, and H and I had incredible light crisp stuffed crepes – bliss.
As we headed back to the train station, and our journey home, Zermatt had two last treats for us. The first we bumped into walking along the road. 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn and Zermatt was understandably commemorating it with a whole host of special events including a sort of guided dramatised tour that involved people in Victorian mountaineering outfits walking purposefully through Zermatt towards the mountains. It all looked like a lot of fun, but the best bit for me was watching one of the women in period dress on the edge of the group. She was completely in character, and she was knitting a sock while walking.
And as for the second treat, well in one days we’d seen mountains, railways, falling snow, chalets, geranium window boxes and a marmot. There was really only one thing left for a full house in Alpine Bingo and the long low bellow called our attention to a choir of three alpine horns playing just outside the station. Beautiful music and the perfect way to end a very wonderful day.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a postcard home without a little video snapshot of our adventures: