Our time in Chamonix was up and it was time to move on to our next destination. Although the weather had been mixed we did have one perfect day that let us do a fantastic hike. We had the chance to really see the mountains around Chamonix. From my persepctive that made the visit a success. It would be nice to have had perfect weather every day but that just doesn't happen in the Alps. There is always a mix of good weather days and bad.
Just to demonstrate the point it had clouded up again in the evening after our hike to Lac Blanc. Now we didn't care. The next morning we packed up and checked out of the hotel. Somehow our stuff seemed to have grown and it wasn't easy to get it all back into the suitcases. Probably some weird corallary of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that has to do with luggage. Since Sandy was worried about how far we had to drag our luggage to the train station we had scouted it out the day before to find the shortest route. It took us seven minutes.
Chamonix and Zermatt are not that far apart. There is even a famous hike, the Haute Route, that travels from Chamonix to Zermatt. It is 110 miles and is usually done in 10 to 12 days, walking from hut to hut through spectacular mountain scenery. Some people even do it as a ski trip in the winter. I'd love to hike it some day. This time we were going by train. Although it wasn't far it involved going from one country to another, crossing high passes (which can require special cog railways) and traveling into remote valleys. It turned out that we needed to take four different trains. With connection times included it took us over four hours to travel from Chamonix to Zermatt. It wasn't a bad trip though. Trains in Europe are fun to ride. The scenery was interesting. The trains were comfortable. It was an excuse to just sit quietly after a long hard hike the day before. We reached Zermatt without incident about 1:30 in the afternoon and headed for the Hotel Parnass. This time we didn't have to wait for our room. Sandy even took the bait-and-switch and upgraded to a Matterhorn view room. It was nice though. We were on the fourth floor (fifth as North Americans would count) with a room with a nice patio that faced the famous mountain. The only bad news was that we didn't get many pictures from our balcony. There was a building under construction about a block away and every evening when they finished work they swung the big crane being used right into the field of view of any pictures that we took. It didn't block our view of the mountain but it certainly cluttered up the foreground for any photographs. It was still very nice sitting on the balcony with a glass of wine and admiring the mountain.
After checking into our hotel we went to scout out Zermatt. Our first goal was to get lunch. We found out that unlike Chamonix, in Zermatt most of the retaurants only served at certain times. Eventually we ended up in the Brown Cow Pub where we could get a hamburger and fries anytime. Not exactly traditional Swiss fare but it tasted really good. At least it was better than McDonald's. Yes, one of the things I had to come to grips with is that since I had been to the Alps in the mid-eighties, both Chamonix and Zermatt got a McDonald's. Progress.
At first the weather forecast for our time in Zermatt had not been good. But it had been steadily improving as the time got closer. Now it looked like the weatherman had relented. We would have one day of mostly cloudy weather (but at least no rain) followed by two days of mostly sunny weather. That would be good enough for us.
The next day was indeed mostly cloudy but with some patches of blue sky. The top of the Matterhorn was hidden in the clouds. If there is a cloud anywhere within miles of Zermatt, it will be over the summit of the Matterhorn.
Since it wasn't raining we decided on a hike to Tufteren, a small village perched on the side of the valley wall about two thousand feet above Zermatt. We were able to start walking right from our hotel. A short distance up the street a trail started that led us on a long gradual uphill climb to Tufteren. It was a nicely graded trail and the two thousand foot climb took us about two hours. Along the way there were lots of nice views of the Matterhorn through the trees. It would have been even better with a bright blue sky but it was pleasantly cool for hiking. Not the most conducive to beautiful photographs. But it could be worse. Could be raining.
The village of Tufterin was five or six old farm buildings in an open meadow. Very picturesque, especially with the Matterhorn as a backdrop. One farmhouse was set up as a restaurant with patio seating. The only person there was an old guy sitting by the door reading a book. He was obviously the owner, waiting for tourists to hike up from Zermatt. He greeted us as we came off the trail. Being the first ones there we had our choice of seats and ordered some drinks. When the owner took our orders he tempeted us with fresh plum cake that his wife had just made. Sandy had been eating plums from the local markets and thought they were really good. So we succumbed to temptation and ordered the plum cake with cream. It was awesome. Good thing we were hiking to burn up those calories. When you are in the Alps it isn't clear whether you eat to hike or hike to eat. Either way it tasted really good.
After eating we rested a while before the hike back to Zermatt. We made a loop trip by taking a different trail back, one called "the Diretissima". That's an Italian term, usually used by climbers to describe a route that goes to the summit in a straight line with no variations. That pretty much described this trail - straight down. It was hard work but it definitely got us back to Zermatt in a hurry. We were back by midafternoon.
After our hike we went into the center of Zermatt. That's pretty easy, as there is essentially one main street that runs from the train station. There are no cars in Zermatt. Sort of. If you are driving a car you have to park it at the train station in Tasch, the last village about four miles down the valley from Zermatt. Since so many people park there they have a huge car park about the size of the one for Miller Park. It makes sense because Zermatt is tucked in between steep valley walls. The streets are very narrow with no room for cars. The entire village is a pedestrian zone. Except for public buses. And small motorized carts that all the hotels use to drive their guests to and from the train station. And motorized carts used by various businesses to haul goods around. For a village with no cars, Zermatt sure has a lot of traffic.
The afternoon ended up being quite nice so we settled in at the Monte Rosa Hotel to have a beer and watch the crowds of tourists walking by along the main street. The Monte Rosa is a very famous hotel with a long history. In the nineteenth century, during the Golden Age of Mountaineering, most of the peaks around Zermatt were climbed for the first time. The Hotel Monte Rosa was the hotel of choice for members of the Alpine Club when they came to Zermatt on mountaineering trips. The last of the peaks to be climbed was the Matterhorn in July of 1865 by a party led by Edward Whymper. I remember reading about the first ascent in Whymper's autobiography, "Scrambles Amongst the Alps". It's a dramatic story in which two parties are racing to be the first to reach the summit, one from the Swiss side and one from the Italian side. Whymper's party reached the summit two days before their competitors, but a terrible accident occurred on the descent and four of the seven climbers in the party were killed. But I remember reading in his book how Whymper and the other climbers had stayed at the Hotel Monte Rosa in Zermatt before starting their climb. In fact, we were enjoying our beers in "Edward's Bar" right under a plaque dedicated to the first ascent of the Matterhorn. It was the climber's equivalent of staying at a hotel with a "George Washington slept here" sign.
Back in my serious climbing days I had spent a lot of time in Zermatt trying to climb the Matterhorn. One of the things that I remembered was a small hole-in-the-wall crepe place. My climbing partner and I used to go there every day for crepes: cheese crepes, sugar crepes, fruit crepes. Back then it was unusual and a real treat. As Sandy and I were walking through Zermatt we came across that same crepe place. I suspect it was the same lady making crepes - she looked to be in her fifties. We both had a crepe. It was just as good as I remembered it from twenty five years ago.