ZERMATT, Switzerland—If the Swiss ran the world, trains and planes would be on time. Every hotel room would have a view, and reservations would never be lost. Communicating would be easy because the Swiss seem able to speak whatever language you greet them in. You would never have a bad meal. In fact, nothing bad would ever happen.
To the casual observer, the Swiss run their country with a by-the-book precision that is no empty cliché, as I discovered last month spending a week in Zermatt, a mile-high village in the heart of the Alps. A winter skiing center so close to Italy that you can get there by lift, Zermatt is wedged between mountains at the end of a deeply cut valley, with the fabled Matterhorn looming to the southwest, solitary and singular. In summer when the snow melts and the wildflowers bloom, it is a classic Alpine postcard of a place, cozy, traditional, family oriented, right out of "Heidi."
The last leg of the six-hour train trip was on a trunk line that follows the cloudy, glacier-fed Vispa River, hugging the mountainsides, crossing and recrossing the waterway like a high-strung filly. There is a road through the valley as well. But cars are allowed only as far as the hamlet of Täsch, about five miles north of Zermatt, where drivers must leave their vehicles and continue by train or electric taxi, which is a little like a golf cart.
Horse-drawn carriages and whining electric cabs wait outside the train station in Zermatt to take arrivals to their hotels, most of which are Alpine chalets with balconies and flower boxes, the models for the phony ones you see in tourist traps. Then you look up and gasp as you see the Matterhorn, too boldly sculpted and invincible to seem hackneyed. You find yourself repeatedly going to the window to make sure it's still there.
My room at the immaculate Hotel Biner, where I stayed the first two nights, had a balcony with a view across Zermatt's vegetable gardens and slate roofs to the Matterhorn. I had booked a double for $145, including breakfast, but when I arrived, the front-desk clerk said I should take a single for $66. It wasn't the money; it was as though he felt it only right that a solo traveler stay in a single room.
I loved the view and the orderliness of the room, which had simple pine furniture, a single bed covered with a duvet and a full bath with faucets that took me awhile to figure out. The breakfast buffet was a typically Swiss fortifying feast: muesli, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts, cheese, rye bread, pastry and good, strong coffee.
During my first evening stroll, I quickly discovered that this village of 5,600 isn't as small as it seems, sprawling up the sides of the valley. Cranes were poised over the central square where a hotel conference center is being built, and Bahnhofstrasse, the main artery, has Benetton, Patagonia, a Swatch outlet, myriad outdoors outfitters and kitschy souvenir shops where tourists buy Swiss Army knives.
Bahnhofstrasse is intersected by winding alleyways lined with old-fashioned larchwood storehouses and stables. Chalkboards outside restaurants advertise traditional Swiss fare: fondue, raclette (a melted cheese dish), rösti (like hash brown potatoes). The signs are in German, which predominates in Zermatt although the village is near the French-speaking section of Switzerland and just across the mountains from Italy.
In the mornings it is clear why people come to Zermatt in the summer. There is skiing at high altitudes, where snow always clings to the mountains. It is also a mountain walker's paradise, where the risks are few and the pleasures of the scenery great. They come out after breakfast with rucksacks and walking sticks and head toward paths that lead to meadow-encircled hamlets with lonely little chapels, then upward to tundra, Alpine lakes, scree, snow and ice.
The mountains nearby look as steep and forbidding as the Grand Tetons of Wyoming or the Canadian Rockies. But the hand of man has made them extraordinarily accessible by a network of railways, ski lifts and cable cars, including the highest in Europe, which terminates at 12,533 feet near the top of the Klein (or Little) Matterhorn. Sightseers can take an aerial cableway or train into the mountains and walk back to the village, downhill all the way.
Of course, serious Alpinists come to Zermatt, complete with crampons (spikes attached to hiking boots for snow and ice) and ice axes, to climb the 14,691-foot Matterhorn or nearby peaks considered technically harder, like Dent d'Hérens and the Weisshorn. In season and in fair weather, 200 climbers a day sometimes reach the top of the Matterhorn, usually with a Swiss mountain guide from the Alpin Center in town. Blind climbers, amputees, 90-year-olds and a French violinist who played Bach on the summit have all made it up the Matterhorn.
The mountain is a demanding climb, testing the most experienced Alpinists and striking fear in the hearts of those who know its tragedies. The first and most unforgettable of these occurred July 14, 1865, the day the Matterhorn was finally conquered, after a party of seven climbers, led by Englishman Edward Whymper, successfully raced for the summit against a team of climbers approaching from the Italian side of the infamous Alp. Whymper's group was coming down from the top, roped together, when one man lost his footing and fell, dragging three others to their deaths. Then the rope broke, saving Whymper and two Swiss guides.
Strangely, the accident put Zermatt on the map, attracting mountaineers from everywhere, above all Britons during the Victorian era. And Zermatt still has a decidedly English air.
The Hotel Monte Rosa at the center of the village bears a plaque commemorating Whymper, who stayed there before his bitter victory. Above it is poised little St. Peter's Anglican church, built in 1869 for English climbers and fresh-air vacationers. It contains the remains of Charles Hudson, the Lincolnshire clergyman who died on the first ascent of the Matterhorn with others in the Whymper party.
I spent more than an hour in Zermatt's Alpine Museum, below the English church. It has a stuffed mountain goat known as an ibex; a topo model of the Monte Rosa massif, which bounds Zermatt to the south; and a room devoted to Alpine tragedies. Most compelling to me was the rope that broke on the first ascent of the Matterhorn, frayed and weak-looking in its case, and a letter written by Whymper shortly after the calamity, saying of the mountain, "Now the very name of it is hateful to me."