Uniquely Swiss

Uniquely Swiss

frosty heights

Uniquely Swiss

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer revel in the Swiss surroundings of Zermatt with its anti-pollution policy, chill-inducing Matterhorn and icing sugar snow.

After the super swift, hi-tech efficiency of the Glacier Express, Zermatt surprised us. Pleasantly so. There were no cars at the station. No tourist coaches. Not even trams clickety-clacking on their tracks and powered by the never-failing hydroelectricity of Switzerland.

We had journeyed to this pretty little Alpine town, at the base of the great mountains, in Swissrail’s glassed-in Glacier Express. Somewhere down the line, we had passed a station where the cars and coaches serving Zermatt-bound passengers had been parked. The only people permitted to drive a fossil fuel vehicle in Zermatt were the doctor, and he could use it only when he was answering a medical call, and the Sanitation Department for its garbage vans. They’re so strict about this no-polluting-vehicles rule that, when we walked out of the squeaky clean station, we had the option of boarding our hotel’s electric car or hopping onto a horse-drawn carriage. Even the slow and stately horses weren’t permitted to pollute the environment: they wore debris-collecting plastic diapers slung under their tails!

Our hotel, and virtually every other hotel in Zermatt, was warm with wood, bright with flowers cascading out of its window boxes and alive with the soft sounds of rushing streams. The water was clear and sparkling, ice melt from the glaciers that stretched down from the encircling mountains and stopped just a little short of this green valley town.

We strolled in the gold-dusted twilight with smiling Swiss, hearty Germans, serious Japanese festooned with cameras, and gesticulating Italians semaphoring their enthusiasm to each other. We window-shopped for cuckoo-clocks, amber from Poland, sinfully rich Swiss confections, and mountaineering equipment that called for more true grit than we were prepared to muster at the moment.

Stone-edged roundabouts were filled with flowering bushes. Three-storey wooden cottages rose with brightly lit shops on the ground floor and apartments above: all very prim and proper, very Swiss. The wooden shutters on every window were open, the lace curtains inside were starched. Beyond this good order rose the mountains, bald in patches, like benign elders looking down with avuncular approval. Everything was just so, as reassuring as a picture-postcard where the unexpected had been abolished. Perhaps that’s why the Swiss are compulsive mountaineers: they need the uncertainty of it to challenge the clockwork precision of their lives!

To climb or not to climb

As Indians, we felt as cosseted as babes in a bassinet. But then, our travel writers’ consciences revolted. They said “Shame on you. You’re in Zermatt and haven’t climbed a mountain! What’s wrong with you?!” The next morning, the challenge reasserted itself.
Framed in the window of our room, the Matterhorn rose like a frosted tower against a blue sky. After breakfast, we strode down to the cable-car terminus and bought a three-stage ticket to ascend as high as we could. An American couple ‘wid a Noo Yok’ twang, hoped, very loudly, that the car was not too crowded. This seemed to be the first time they had stepped out of Brooklyn. But they rallied when they saw the Gomergletscher spreading wide and white below, its slow flow defined by rocky rims of moraine.

On the stop before the last one, we looked up and saw banks of mist roiling like angry breakers in the sky. We were of two minds to do the last stage because the weather seemed to be closing in. But we decided that since we had come this far, we should continue. We did.

We stepped out at the last stage and caught an elevator rising through the glacial rock. It was chilly at 3,884 m and we could see very little with mist swirling around us, like restless wraiths from another world. Then, we noticed a flight of gray metal steps, zig-zagging to a platform 10 m above and a young Japanese woman, in high-heels, picking her way down very, very, cautiously.

Unexpectedly, the mist cleared and a shaft of sunlight lanced down out of a break in the clouds. We trudged up the metal stairs and stood on a platform and gazed around. The wind sliced sharp and cold, a large crucifix soared protectively, and the great, frozen, mountains that stretched out to the horizon brooded silently over their own jagged immortality.

From our perch in the Kleines Matterhorn, we looked out at the 4,146 m high Breithorn and saw three little figures, like tiny black ants, inching their way up the soft, icing sugar snow of the mountain. A blonde Englishwoman, in a red parka, stared at them. She said, to no one in particular, “My husband is a mountaineer,” and shivered.

We had begun to shiver too and so, very reluctantly, we left this high, frigid world and stepped into a welcoming Alpine restaurant in Furi, 1,886 m high. It seemed to have been made of ruby red cherry-wood and had a red awning, red chairs and red tablecloths. Its out-thrusting chalet balconies were protected by yellow wooden lattice railings. Red and yellow! Too brashly assertive for Swiss tastes. Just then, however, an iconic Swiss strode into view. He was gray-haired and wore a backpack, shorts, stockings, sturdy shoes and carried a custom made hiking stick. He was accompanied by a dog though it wasn’t a St Bernard with the regulation brandy-cask around its neck. Our looming fury as the apparent un-Swissness of Furi abated. Besides, if we objected to the ‘Snake Charmers and Dancing Girls’ image of India, what right had we to demand conformity to our stereotyped image of Switzerland? We relaxed and lunched on stalwart Swiss fare, robust with potatoes, cheese, meat and beer. Our waiter with the apple cheeks of a dairy farmer, asked proudly, “You have such mountains in your land? Yes?” We looked out at the cable car sweeping down into the valley of Zermatt at an elevation of 1,616 m.

“We live at 2,000 m,” we said. “in the foothills of the Himalayas.”  He seemed to be as surprised as we had been when we first set foot in the picture-postcard and dedicatedly eco-friendly town of Zermatt.