When I’m in Switzerland I forget about the rest of the world. I forget that I have a life outside of being surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. I live each day as if all I have to do is take advantage of every second possible to snowboard, enjoy the outdoors, ride trains, ride gondolas, ride chair lifts, enjoy the company of my husband, and at the end of the day reward myself with happy hour and a delicious dinner before sleeping soundly, waking up, and doing it all again. It’s like a fairytale, or a dream; but a lot of things about Switzerland leave you unable to remain attached to reality.
Our destination in Switzerland was a town called Zermatt. It is a well sought mountain resort for outdoor activity; popular with mountain climbers, campers, and mountain bikers. We went for the skiing. We packed up our little Subaru and traveled a total of 1,150 km, there and back. In this 14 hours I learned one valuable automobile lesson. When you stop to refuel make sure you screw your gas cap on properly. If you don’t the check engine light will come on, the cruise control light will continuously blink and you will not be able to use it. You will also get a bit annoyed because you won’t realize exactly what is wrong at first. You’ll be upset because the car just came back from the dealership for the third time this year. Most recently you just had your clutch replaced and you don’t feel like having any other issues. Anyway, you’ll read the manual and realize your mistake, but it will take hours of driving for the car’s system to correct itself.
Switzerland has more tunnels than any other place I’ve ever been; the tunnels aren’t short either. The mountains are huge so it can take anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes to get through them. During one part of our drive we had to put our car on a train that carried us for forty minutes through a mountain. It was nuts! In particular it was nuts because before we loaded the train we had no idea what was happening. (Let me back up.) We’d been driving for over six hours. We’d already snacked, crossed the border, refueled the car, and stopped to pee six times. The road ahead of us split into a couple of lanes. They all had signs over them but the only word I recognized was the sign labeled Cashier. We chose that lane figuring, for whatever reason, we would want to be in the line where we could give someone money. We paid the toll collector 22,00 CHF, (Swiss Francs) she handed us a receipt and a pamphlet, and we drove on, but not for long. We ended up in a long line of cars waiting for something that we would soon learn is a train. Our ignorance made us laugh. Why did we have no idea we were going to get on a train? It’s kind-of a big deal; bigger than crossing a long bridge or getting on the Garden State Parkway. We hoped our GPS knew what was going on and this train wasn’t going to take us somewhere we didn’t want to be. Once off the train we stopped at the first gas station we saw and bought a map.
The rest of the drive to Zermatt (when you aren’t driving through rock) is pretty. The road structure has remained simple. Look at a map of Switzerland sometime if you don’t believe me. We stayed on one road the whole time. It wasn’t a multilane highway either; just a one lane road that wound through towns, over hills, up mountains, and along streams. I think it would be impossible to get lost in Switzerland. The speed limit through the country is nice and slow too. I guess this can be good or bad. It’s good because you can look around and enjoy the scenery as you drive. Also, you don’t have to be concerned with someone coming up behind you, out of nowhere, and speeding past you nearly clipping off your side view mirror. It could be annoying however, if you are someone who prefers to go at least 50 MPH at all times. The rest of our week was spent on public transportation or walking. We didn’t even fully drive to our destination. No one does. There are no cars allowed in Zermatt. You have to ride the train from a town called Täsch down into Zermatt. Once in the town you walk everywhere or pay for an electric taxi cab.
When you’re used to spending dollars spending anything else feels weird. More precisely, it feels like Monopoly money. You’re holding a note and it has an amount of worth on it. You’re not quite sure how that amount relates to a dollar, and further more you’re not sure how commodities are priced in the land you’re in. When you’re in a ski town in Switzerland the price on items seems so insane its impossible to wrap your brain around. It brings “Monopoly money” to a whole new level. When we booked the hotel it was relatively normal, expensive for us, but normal; and it included breakfast…OK. When we paid to park the car it was no more expensive than at an airport…OK. And by the same token; the price of a lift ticket was no more extreme than at resorts like Stowe or Aspen…OK. (And for the record; the lift ticket isn’t a ticket. It’s a credit card, that you put in your pocket and you go through turnstiles to ride the lift after the machine automatically senses your lift card. It’s dreamy. It’s not like resorts I’ve been to where you have a ticket hanging off your jacket, flapping in the wind, left on your zipper so you can collect them all season long and have a gaggle of old stickers hanging on your jacket by the end of the season as a symbol of your Winter sports accomplishments.) Sometimes, when you get lucky, beer is even reasonably priced. (Someone has to quench the thirst of the poor.) Food however, food and clothing my friends, is a whole new ball game. Let me give you a few examples. We paid 46,00 CHF for fondue for two people. We paid 14,00 for two bottles of water. How much is that in dollars?…this is exactly my point. Who cares? It’s Monopoly money. After a stroll through town and dinner, on our first night, we got all the wide-eyes, laughing, pointing, and disapproving head shakes out of our system. We had made the decision to go to Zermatt and we were going to embrace it at all costs. (pun intended) We never spent less than 45,00 CHF in one sitting; and we never skipped a sitting. It would be impossible. The food was too delicious, and after skiing for a couple of hours we were always too hungry.
Since I brought it up I might as well continue on by praising everything I consumed while in Zermatt. The free breakfast at the hotel was glorious. We had fresh rolls with fancy cheese and ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, crescents with Nutella, kiwi, fruit salad, and granola mush. (please do not be turned off by my descriptive words.) The granola mush was my favorite part. It was like a cross between oatmeal and soggy granola and yogurt. Phil’s favorite part was the unlimited amount of fresh coffee that you serve yourself out of a grand automatic coffee machine. This is very different, or course, to normal hotel coffee in America. The coffee there is brewed into a pot and everyone drinks the same coffee from the same pot; no matter how long the pot sits on the burner. Here you have a machine with every option from espresso, to coffee, to cappuccino, to hot milk, to cold milk. My favorite part, of course, is when I found the Ovaltine to sweeten my coffee with. I use Ovaltine in my coffee everyday at home, but when I travel I have to pack my own or sacrifice. In Switzerland there is no Ovaltine sacrifice needed. Surprise! Ovaltine is a Swiss company! If I wasn’t in love before; I was after that point.
It might come as a bit of a surprise that, Ovaltine aside, we didn’t consume too much chocolate in Switzerland. We did, however, consume a quarter-ton of cheese. It started with fondue for dinner the first night. It continued with brie and swiss at breakfast. During lunch cheese would end up being baked into things like quiche (which was often referred to as cheesecake) and Rösti. (which is a Swiss dish consisting of a single, large, glorious hash brown topped with a variety accessories, maybe eggs, and cheese.) It got to a point where I had to make a conscious effort, by the last day, to avoid eating cheese.
As a snowboarder in Zermatt, one can feel like a stepchild. It’s no Mad River Glen, but around 90% of the people on the mountain are skiing; and 80% of that group are over 35 years old. When I’m standing in the lift line behind mature couples (The man dressed in a collared shirt, silk scarf, no hat, sunglasses, and vest; and his wife in a Bogner jacket, with matching pants, sunglasses, and red lipstick.) I can’t help but feel like a punk. Once you’re cruising down the trails everyone looks the same, but the lift lines (as well as happy hour) are great places to pick up style tips. Now that I’ve said that I do have to counter myself by saying that in Zermatt, like every ski resort, you still see (older) people skiing with equipment and clothing that is incredibly old and they still look something like this….
Even in a town like Zermatt our eyes are not safe, but our thirst for humor is quelled momentarily.
In addition to the style dichotomy between Zermatt tourists, there is also a noticeable difference in language. I think most people there speak German, but you can hear just as much French, Italian, Japanese, and English. Most signs (and menus) are in, at least, three languages. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live and work in that environment. Phil pointed out that a waiter (or waitress) must look at a patron and take a guess as to the origin of their nationality, speak to them in that nation’s language, and hope for the best. And then of course, when in doubt just speak English because most people can understand English. It was pretty trippy to walk down the street and hear so much International chatter. In particular I love German with a French accent.
We rode for three days. The resort at Zermatt is huge; it’s got (roughly) 10 skiable peaks spanning Switzerland and Italy. We only paid to ski the Swiss side, and it was plenty. When I am at a resort it is not my main goal to ski every possible trail only once. I like to ski the same area for a while and get comfortable with it. I find that this makes the trails more enjoyable and I end up riding faster or finding better snow on certain spots. (And since Phil snowboards three times as fast as I do, it makes meeting at the bottom much easier.)
The weather while we were there wasn’t awesome. There was some soggy snow, wind, and low visibility; but we got a bit of fresh snowfall the first day. Low visibility is another reason why I like to ski the same runs multiple times. Once you know where you are going, it isn’t such a big deal that you can’t see. Riding when you can’t see is like floating. You get a true sense of weightlessness because you have no point of reference. Everything under you, over you, and on all sides of you is white. You know your snowboard is on the ground moving forward, but that is it. You just bend your knees to absorb bumps, point your stick, and hope for the best. Luckily there are long orange markers, marking the edge of a trail. If it wasn’t for this you could easily go over an edge.
The Italian side of the ski resort was actually closed a lot while we were there. All three days while we were riding we could hear dynamite (or something similar) going off, every so often, to release snow from areas at high risk for avalanche. Even though we stuck to the areas deemed “safe” to ski I still felt like a tough-guy for being in such close proximity to danger and its prevention.
The highest gondola ride is to 12,748 ft. This mountain top is known as the Small Matterhorn. (The large Matterhorn tops out at 14,692 ft, but it is not skiable.) From the Small Matterhorn you have access to a view of 38 peaks over 13,000 ft. Due to weather (and our timing) we never made it that high. Generally we skied from just over 10,000 ft. In case you’re wondering, this hight is plenty high. It would take almost forty minutes to get from our hotel (in the valley) to the top. We would ride a train and two gondolas to get there; thus having plenty of time to digest our meat, cheese, granola, fruit, coffee breakfast.
For those of you who do not enjoy Winter sports allow me the pleasure of explaining apres ski. After a long, tiresome, day of getting exercise outdoors in the snow one always rewards themselves with a refreshment at a watering hole at the base of the resort. In Zermatt there are plenty of adorable, cozy cabins (or huts) that you can stop at for a beer or champagne while making your way off the mountain. I do not enjoy stopping for a drink before my last run is complete. I prefer the comfort of knowing my board is retired for the day before fully relaxing. At the base of this resort we found a couple of delightful establishments to settle at, in the hours after ski and before dinner. There are a few essential ingredients to apres-ing in Zermatt. You will need plenty of fresh air, some Santana for breaks in between the live classic rock hits played by a guy with a keyboard, lots of old guys with red faces and heads full of white hair, women with cool boots and expensive watches, open fires, and plenty of seating with a good view. Yes, a view of the Matterhorn is desireable, but more entertaining is the view of the tired skiers, snowboarders, and sledders coming off their last run of the day. Also, equally enjoyable, is the view of those who went back to the hotel early to freshen up and our now strutting down the street, and around the bars, on early patrol.
So many great things happened on this trip. Our eyes have seen things we could never have imagined; from wildlife on the mountain, to adorable mountaineering villages, to the perfect salad at a pizza place tucked up in a mountain. We had excitement as well as humor. I wish I could document it all. But as much as I love to write, and photograph, and paint pictures after; I still enjoy bearing witness to moments that will stay trapped in my mind and memories, only to be recalled some years down the road when Phil and I are sitting down during dinner reminiscing about that time in Zermatt…