ZERMATT, Switzerland - Richie Richter grew up in what was Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany, works as a night clerk in Switzerland, and dreams only of getting back to Canada.
Richter is a robust man with spiking sandy-brown hair. Alone each night, he tends the darkened lobby at the Hotel Matterhorn Focus here, wearing a cotton shirt with the red maple leaf front and center. Some nights, I come down to join him, and Richter explains how he isn't really a German in spirit, but Canadian. He serves me meat, cheese, and bread sticks and tells me about Halifax and how, next time over, he is going to travel the route from New Brunswick to Vancouver, and it's going to be fantastic.
Zermatt is a place for dreamers like Richter. It pulls in workers from Portugal, from Germany and beyond, each bringing a longing for Alpine gentility, fresh air, and a touch of glamour. They help incubate the dreams of the visitors who come each winter to experience the unique pleasure of skiing in a region too remote even for pollution, anchored by a village where cars are banned and everyone moves on foot, in tin-can electric taxis, or, weather permitting, on skis.
Each morning, the first golden sunlight reflects from the chiseled east face of the Matterhorn. At some angles and in some lights, the mountain looks like a seated Buddha. At other times, it mimics the Great Sphinx. At night, as the dark Alpine sky becomes a sea of stars, the black, silhouetted mountain seems to nod off, once more a slumbering giant.
It was the allure of the mountains that turned Zermatt from a poor village without regular medical care, cut off in the winter even from the rest of Switzerland, into an international destination. First came the British climbers, for the Matterhorn (first ascended in 1865) and the other major peaks. Then, there were those who simply wanted to look at the mountains and take in the healthy Alpine air. And then, starting in earnest in 1960, the skiers.
You can ski the Alps from France to Slovenia, but there is only one Matterhorn. Because Zermatt sits at about 5,300 feet, it always has snow, and it caters to an affluent crowd, yet is down to earth and has accommodations almost anyone can afford (such as Sparky's, a popular hostel). People like St. Moritz, and they enjoy Grindelwald, but a devotee of Zermatt is committed - a believer.
Daniel Dehling and Bruno Schmid are dreamers with wings. Whenever the winds are right, they unfold their paragliders from backpacks, harness up, and fly off the side of a mountain. Nine years ago, I flew from the Rothorn (10,341 feet), hitched to a paraglider with Bruno - an experience so thrilling, yet so obviously treacherous, that the first thing I say when I see him this time is, "Bruno, I'm amazed you're still alive."
Schmid, now 45, smiles and says, "There are no bad old paraglider pilots."
I decide to test that, but rather than tempt fate twice, I volunteer my lovely wife to fly with Schmid. She, in turn, nominates me as her wingman, and one minute after she runs off the mountainside, harnessed to Schmid, I follow, dangling in front of Dehling. We fly in formation and swoop low to harass and amuse the skiers, then we climb to glide by the Matterhorn, glowering in eternal indifference to our left. After 20 minutes, we land in tandem in a garden of fresh snow above the village railroad station.
When Heinz Julen dreams, things soon happen. A descendant of one of the original families of Zermatt - a 44-year-old who remembers walking through the mountain pasture of his father's cattle and goats to get to school - Julen crafts his dreams as fine art, as interior design, as architecture (he created our hotel, the Focus), and as pure theater. In his bar/art gallery, Vernissage, Julen slips into the glass-walled projection booth, and like the Wizard of Oz, sets in motion the special effects: The chandeliers swing away in the theater below, the curtains open, the blinds come down, and the room is ready for a showing of the latest James Bond film.
Zermatt breeds passions like those of Julen, and passions are nothing if not dreams turned into ambition. Julen began as a ski instructor, and he, like nearly everyone who lives here or visits, takes his skiing and his mountains seriously.
Each morning, from even the oldest and most stately hotels, such as the Zermatterhof, which is owned by the community, and the Mont Cervin Palace, which belongs to another old Zermatt family, a great migration takes place. Masses of visitors and off-duty inhabitants, their ski boots clanking, the snow crunching under their feet, head toward the lifts. As the village empties, the mountains become crisscrossed with their tracks.
Upgrades to the lift system have finally linked all the mountains, so unlike our last visit, it is now possible to ski from one end of the Zermatt slopes to the other - straight into neighboring Italy, where you can get a good and relatively inexpensive Italian lunch. It's quite an international adventure, and many of us do it, though we have to forgive the fact that, at two of the Italian stations we visit, the women's bathrooms are broken and everyone must commune together in the men's rooms.
As with all Alpine resorts, the snow bars, positioned just before the final runs end, pick up the skiers on their way home from slopes fallen into blue shadow. A joyful, inebriated noise continues until after dark, but gradually, even the stragglers return to the village.
There is nightlife, but in the main, the village goes to bed early. Nighttime is made for dreamers, of course - and here it leaves them in peace until the sun arrives once more to throw its band of gold across the east face of the Matterhorn.
British Airways, Continental, Lufthansa, United, and US Airways fly to Zurich, Switzerland, from Philadelphia, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $606.
Zermatt is about 150 miles (about three hours by train) from Zurich. An eight-day Swiss Pass buys rides on all trains and postal buses; www.myswitzerland.com.
Places to stay
The Hotel Matterhorn Focus is up a road that hugs the east bank of the Vispa, the river that runs through Zermatt. It sits just above a ski lift and a shop where you can rent skis and store them for free. www.matterhornfocus.ch.
On a budget? Consider
La Couronne, www.hotel-couronne.ch.
Places to eat
At Heimberg, the chef cooks from a purposely limited menu, unless you ask him to dream up something special for you - in which case, sit back and watch the magic happen. www.heimberg-zermatt.ch. Sonnmatten is a bright and charming hotel restaurant with a sophisticated menu, offered by a particularly gracious host, Rene Foster. www.sonnmatten.ch.
Swiss winter resorts are renowned for their mountain restaurants. Chez Vrony, a hangout for locals, is so festive you need to reserve for a ski-day lunch: www.chezvrony.ch. At the Fluhalp, you may find a band playing pop favorites for those dining alfresco in ski boots, some of whom may start to sing along. www.fluhalp-zermatt.ch.
Each year we run the numbers, and it is still a bargain to ski Switzerland, in part because it is a matter of national pride that the mountains remain affordable to all Swiss. From our home in New York City, selecting our usual options, it remains cheaper to ski for a week in Zermatt than in Vail or Aspen. To help with your itinerary, visit the Web site of the Tourist Office of Zermatt: www.zermatt.ch.
608 Fifth Ave., New York
- Alan and Julie Behr