Part III: Magritte’s Matterhorn and Zermatt
Today Zermatt is a hustle-bustle hamlet with 7,000 residents and 23,000 daily peak season visitors at one of the Continent’s most popular destinations. True too in Mark Twain’s era, with actual and armchair Alpenists drawn to Europe’s best-known mountain: the 14,691-foot Matterhorn. “The monarch was far away when we first saw him, but there was no such thing as mistaking him,” Twain mused in his1880 book A Tramp Abroad. “He has the rare peculiarity of standing by himself; he is peculiarly steep, too, and is also most oddly shaped. He towers into the sky like a colossal wedge, with the upper third of its blade bent a little to the left. The broad base of this monster wedge is planted upon a grand glacier-paved Alpine platform whose elevation is ten thousand feet above sea-level… So the whole bulk of this stately piece of rock, this sky-cleaving monolith, is above the line of eternal snow… Its strange form… august isolation, and… majestic unkinship with its own kind, make it… the Napoleon of the mountain world… Think of a monument a mile high, standing on a pedestal two miles high! This is what the Matterhorn is — a monument.” Indeed, in the 1950s Zermatt frequenter Walt Disney built a monumental replica, with bobsleds and ski lift, at his SoCal amusement park.
After being bitten by the mountain climbing bug, which caused the author to “feel the spirit of adventure… stir,” Twain’s tallest Tramp tale takes place near the Matterhorn, as he forms “the most imposing expedition that had ever marched from Zermatt”: 154 men and 51 animals (including an exploding nitroglycerine-eating mule!) to ascend the 8,471 foot Riffelberg. Despite the fact that Twain’s team included 17 guides, it promptly got lost in the Alpine wilds (perhaps because “15 barkeepers” accompanied the safari).
To paraphrase Twain, the news of their disappearance was greatly (and deliberately) exaggerated. In any case, my peregrinations above Zermatt were less dramatic and humorous, if more splendiferous. I soared 9,642 feet above the peaks, riding a cable car to Furi, where I transferred to another gondola that carried me yonder to Trockener Steg, where I had a hot chocolate at the Ice Buffet & Bar. From there I hiked for about two hours down to Zermatt, passing a lake, ravines, waterfalls, yellow wild flowers, flocks of fleecy, black-snouted sheep and dining al fresco at Restaurant Z’mutt on eggs and Rösti (eateries catering to hungry hikers are big business at remote Alpine hamlets).
Back at Zermatt I dined near the train station at the superb Casa Rustica, one of those ancient-seeming traditional Swiss houses, with deer and other trophy heads mounted on the wood-paneled walls. I enjoyed attentive service with a to-die-for shrimp cocktail appetizer, and for my main course ordered delicious grilled sea bass, served in a tempting white wine sauce with boiled potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, green beans and carrots. A desert of homemade waffles with a fricassee of red berries, whipped cream and vanilla ice cream simply melted in my mouth. Yum!
I stayed in a cozy room at the Romantik Hotel Julien, which I suppose is called “romantic” because the décor includes things like brightly colored linens and curtains, red heart shaped wall hangings, zebra skin rugs and a wellness center, featuring an outrageous pool where the water caresses one in a variety of cascades from the walls and floor, providing nautical massages. More traditional massages (as well as the house specialty – a hay massage) are provided up a flight of stairs in a spa, which includes a Finnish dry sauna, ice cave, caldarium, laconicum, stone bath, and casually nude Europeans lounging about. On a more practical side, there is a computer available free of charge to guests in the lobby who wish to send emails and the like, and the Julien’s breakfasts are generous and tasty.
But the most romantic thing about this hotel was the dead on, unobstructed view from my balcony of the Matterhorn. I noticed that late at night, as in surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting The Empire of Light, the Matterhorn still glowed, while Zermatt was enveloped in inky darkness. Perhaps the snow-dusted mountain, sprinkled with fairy dust, glistened reflecting the moonlight and starlight. Eerie, but lovely, while the early morning view of the Matterhorn is stirringly unearthly.
The following day I returned to the train station to ride an hour on Europe’s highest open-air cogwheel railway, passing 29 peaks that are 13,123 or more feet above sea level, up almost 10,134 feet to the summit of Gornergrat, where there’s a hotel, restaurant and observatory. I returned only part way via train, disembarking at Rifflealp (near where Twain’s mountaineers vanished) with the brilliant idea of trekking back towards Zermatt via Sunegga. But after more than an hour on foot I was famished; imagine my disappointment upon finally reaching Findeln — the first restaurant I encountered hadn’t opened for the season yet! But higher up, Restaurant Enzian not only offered delicious quiche and salmon tortellini, but Matterhorn views so breathtaking from its terrace that, like Twain before me, I was moved to sketch. Fortified by lunch I assailed the uphill trail on foot, passing marmots – those Swiss prairie dogs – until I finally reached the station at 7,506-foot Sunegga. Too late to catch a cable car up to the Rothorn, I was in time for the last return train to Zermatt, a subway ride beneath the Alps.
Twain noted “there is no opiate like Alpine pedestrianism,” and like him, I’m under “the spell… which people find in the Alps, and in no other mountains — that strange, deep, nameless influence, which, once felt, cannot be forgotten — once felt, leaves always behind it a restless longing to feel it again… they said they could find perfect rest and peace nowhere else when they were troubled: all frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps; the Great Spirit of the Mountain breathed his own peace upon their hurt minds and sore hearts, and healed them; they could not think base thoughts or do mean and sordid things here, before the visible throne of God.”
2015 is the sesquicentennial of the Matterhorn’s first conquest by Edward Whymper’s expedition. If Mark Twain was the Napoleon of tall tale tellers, allow me in that spirit to tell a Whymper whopper: I shall follow in the British mountain-climber’s hobnailed boot-steps and make the 150th anniversary ascent up the Matterhorn. Of course, dear reader, any attempt by this scribbling tramp to climb the Matterhorn would end with a whimper, not a bang. However, as with that Mississippi riverboat pilot, when it comes to writing fact and fiction, never the twain shall meet.
Zermatt Tourism: www.zermatt.ch.
Mark Twain Way: A hike from Riffelberg to Riffelalp: www.zermatt.ch/de/page.cfm/erlebnis/sommeraktivitaeten/wandern/ww_mark_twain_weg
Mark Twain Lounge: Riffelalp Resort: www.riffelalp.com/e/gastronomie/mark_twain.html
Casa Rustica: www.casarustica.ch.
Romantik Hotel Julen: www.julen.com/; Riedstrasse 2, CH-3920 Zermatt
Tel. +41 (0)27 966 76 00 ; Fax +41 (0)27 966 76 7 ; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Air Berlin: www.airberlin.com; (866)266-5588. This budget airline flies non-stop direct from L.A., San Francisco, Vancouver, N.Y., Miami or Fort Meyers to Dusseldorf, with connecting flights to Zürich.
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. was interviewed at Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine “48 Hours,” and National Public Radio’s “Savvy Traveler” interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production “Hula Girls,” which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.