24 July 2009

Zermatt, Day Eight.

Within minutes of our arrival in Zermatt, Switzerland, I was struck by two simultaneous realizations: first, my adolescent fantasy of walking these streets in the shadow of the Matterhorn was well and truly shattered, and second, that I am a complete sucker when it comes to adolescent fantasies. I really should have known better.

As always, Zermatt remains free from private cars: the only way to get here is to walk, ride a bike, or take a short train ride from the jumping off town of Täsch in the valley below. In any case, when you arrive, you’ll be confronted by a spectacular mountain valley setting – peaks soar in every direction, and a glacier-fed stream tumbles through the heart of town. If you keep your eyes pointed toward the mountaintops, you may be able to avoid seeing the hordes of tourists who mob the streets, the T-shirt shops, the bars festooned in bierstübe dreck, and the endless San Fernando-meets-the-Alps construction that’s going on here.

No doubt Zermatt represents a wildest-dreams success story for some people, and I’m sure most visitors are having a great time here. But for a post-teenage romantic it’s a huge disappointment. It’s so kitschy here that I don’t even feel sad – just foolish that the peaceful Alpine village I imagined probably ceased to exist 50 years ago or more. Now (according to the map I picked up at the bustling and modern tourist information center) Zermatt boasts 27 hotels that begin with the letter “A”. Actually, that fact – though true – is somewhat misleading: for some reason there are way more “A” hotels than any other letter, but still, there are around 100 hotels in this town. Apple-cheeked milkmaids and bell-clanging cows – not so much.

Like any tourist trap, Zermatt abounds in cheesy diversions, from horse-drawn wagons to bungee jumping. The restaurants post menus in French, Italian, German, and English and I swear I saw a Tex-Mex chicken burrito on one menu. Food prices in most restaurants are crazy expensive: a dinner for two in most places can easily run to $150 or more, and that’s for tourist food – hardly haute cuisine.

It’s a pity, really, that this place is being loved to death. Glance down side alleys and you can catch the occasional glimpse of a traditional timbered building, weathered almost black with age. The ancient hand-hewn slate rooftops will last until these modern condos crumble to dust. But for every authentic bit of history you find, there are a dozen competing modern diversions: the Swatch store, the shop that sells Mont Blanc pens, and of course, the ubiquitous souvenir stands selling identical Chinese-made t-shirts and bad handicrafts. At this point, the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland is as culturally authentic as Zermatt. Take away its admittedly beautiful setting and it’s indistinguishable from any other well-heeled tourist town.

To top it off for us, the raison-d’etre for this whole silly stopover, the reason I’ve dreamed about Zermatt since I was a kid – the Matterhorn itself – isn’t even visible. It’s been socked in by unseasonable clouds all day long, and the forecast isn’t encouraging.

I’ve intentionally presented Zermatt in an unflattering light, but as we always do together, we’ve managed to wrest some fun out of our experience here. We’re amused by the scenic church tower in the center of town – it chimes out the first six notes of “Hot Cross Buns” on the quarter hours. We wandered through a few streets, marveling at prices and peering up at the scenery. However, after a couple of ominous thunderclaps and steadily-increasing drizzle, we ducked into the first bar we could find – a true port in a storm. By sheer dumb luck we somehow managed to stumble into what might be the least touristy eatery in Zermatt. It was filled with geriatric locals, including a lively foursome of gentlemen playing cards and nursing drinks in one corner.
A waitress greeted us in excellent English and pointed us to a cozy corner table. The place was friendly and unassuming and we ended up settling in for a corny tourist meal of surprisingly tasty, boozy fondue. After our early dinner, we picked up a couple of pastries at a bakery and headed back to our hotel, refreshed – and despite our ambivalence about the town – happy.

So it’s true that a dream died today, but it was replaced with knowledge (never a bad thing) and some good memories, even if Zermatt did not turn out to be the place I hoped it would be.

ADDENDUM: We left Zermatt early this morning, mostly relieved to get out of the crowds and carnival atmosphere. But before we left I wandered down to the town square to glance up at the big cloudy spot that hid the Matterhorn. For a few minutes, the clouds cleared enough to give a glimpse of the north and east faces of the mountain, which soars impossibly high above the town. It was enough.

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