By S. Nadja Zajdman
We are heading into the Alps. A sea of whitecaps above a thousand dark valleys sets the theme for our ride through the Valais. A swift, silent train on electrified tracks leaves Geneva in the early afternoon, whisking us away into the stunning landscape. FLASH! Velvet meadows in pastoral valleys. FLASH! Rustic villages of clustered chalets. FLASH! Church spires rise in a rural idyll. FLASH! Hamlets cling to rocky crags. The contrasts continue, and the earth tones turn to blue: blue skies, blue lakes, blue glaciers, blue Alps. Blue on blue. A rhapsody in blue. On and on through the kaleidoscopic landscape.
The names change from French to German now. The Valais becomes the canton of Wallis, and we are rapidly approaching the junction at Visp. We transfer to the line that climbs to Zermatt. It is a railway marvel braving the rushing torrents and deep, surging gorges, chugging up and up through the perilous mountain passes. Higher and higher our red train climbs, until off in the distance we see — is it? can it be? — the famous, infamous Matterhorn. Magnetic, magnificent, its legends and dramas are etched ominously into its sides. Hundreds have perished scaling its ridges; hundreds have faltered in the zigzags of its paths.
There is a Canadian couple behind me. The man shields his eyes, which moves his wife to torment him.
“Look down, Adam! Look down!”
“I can’t! I can’t!”
“But you’re missing everything, sweetheart.”
“I’m warning you, Rena, leave me alone!”
Our party arrives at the bahnhoff and we walk to our hotel. Cars are banned in Heidi-Land. We have dinner in the hotel restaurant. Outside the large picture windows, a sinking apricot-colored sun turns the mountains deep purple.
Mimicking the locals, we order raclette. Raclette is a Valaisan specialty, a half-cake of hard cheese slowly exposed to an open fire. It heats, bubbles, and softens, and is scraped directly onto a dish and presented with potatoes in their jackets, onions in their skins, and gherkins, which is British for pickles.
After dinner, a band strikes up a tune in the area cleared for dancing. The musicians yodel in time to the music — they really do yodel. Construction workers are drinking at the bar; they have been toiling all spring, preparing for winter’s influx of skiers. It is Sunday, and they’re here to unwind. A few will venture across the room, asking women guests to join them in spirited polkas.
At noon the next day we take a cogwheel rail to the belvedere at Gornergrat. We step out onto the Alpine ledge, scanning the view. It is breathtaking. A polar panorama spreads out before us, a vast vista of eternal snow. Not only has there been a change in scenery, but we have transcended seasons, too! Our party enters an aerial cable cabin, which is going to take us higher still. In ski season we would have to wait hours to get aboard, but on this glittering June day we have it all to ourselves.
One of our party jokes with the German-speaking guide. I stick my head out an opening and a blast of thin mountain air whips me in the face. We are suspended in the heavens, hovering over glacial ice fields. Our cabin inches its way along the cable. We are tantalizingly close to the Matterhorn — close enough to see its jagged cone ringed by a frozen cloud. We stop and exit. We take in, breathe in, and re-enter for the descent to Gornergrat. Our party lingers on the belvedere as long as we dare and takes the last, late afternoon train back.
The train’s passengers are natives now, children and mothers and mountaineers in lederhosen. One of them sits with me, excitedly pointing out a mountain goat. The mountaineer is expressive and expansive. His crimson cheeks glow and his blueberry-hued eyes twinkle. He wishes he could communicate with me; the feeling is mutual. We arrive at Zermatt and are about to part forever. He is thinking hard and finally, with great effort and supreme courage he slowly, meticulously iterates, “I vish a goot day to you!” And I vish a very, very goot day to you, too, lovely mountain man!
Zermatt is a fairytale town nestled in a deep valley. Horses tethered to sleighs wait patiently on its cobblestoned streets. Goats graze in emerald pastures. The pastures are studded with dandelions. The chalets and barns are sunburnt. Yet within this fairytale town come-to-life there is a comprehensive emergency service, five doctors, one dentist, and four pharmacies. There are three supermarkets, specialty food stores, shoe shops, souvenir shops, clothing boutiques, and jewellers. Besides the hotels, there are over thirteen thousand guest rooms. Most prominently, there are sports shops stocked with ski, snowboard, mountain bike, and climbing equipment available for sale or for rental.
This enchanted town runs like a Swiss clock. Why wouldn’t it? This is Switzerland.
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