Zermorgan’s Zermatt

Sunrise on the Matterhorn

I’m sitting on my balcony of the Hotel Perren in Zermatt, Switzerland, listening to the church bells ringing out the day as the sun sets over the sheer 5000-foot cliffs to my right, which look like a crashing wave of rock and green pastureland clinging to roiling waters. Sarah and the kids are relaxing in the room after a great day of hiking, running and sightseeing.  In front of me, the sun surrounds the jutting peak of the Matterhorn in a soft yellow glow. The lucid sky, without a cloud in sight, provides the perfect blue background for the rough, snow-covered and angular structure of the Matterhorn itself. The sunlight falls down over the valley mountaintops to my left, as the sun secrets itself from view behind the peaks but still illuminates the town of Zermatt below.

As I sit here, Kyle comes up behind me and puts an iPod earbud in my ear and starts to play one of my favorite songs ever: Beautiful Day by U2.  I ask him what made him come and play this song for me, and he says, “It reminds me of today.”  I almost get teary.

Words cannot describe — at least mine can’t — how much I have enjoyed being in this part of Switzerland. We almost did not get to experience this sublime place for a couple of different reasons that show how travel can create some of the best experiences out of the most unpredictable ones.

Afternoon sun on Zermatt Valley

We came to Switzerland only after we pulled the plug on the logistically difficult visit to Turkey.  It was my idea to come here since I just always wanted to see the Matterhorn, which I guess is left over from years of riding the Disneyland Matterhorn ride and thinking that if the ride was that cool, then the real thing must be amazing.

Barns on hillside by trail leading up the Matterhorn

Unfortunately, I didn’t really know where it was or how to get here.  So, I found the Matterhorn on Google Earth and saw the town of Zermatt next to it, and saw that it looked like good hiking around the area. But when we arrived in Southern Switzerland, it was pouring rain and snowing in Zermatt. We were worried about driving mountain passes without tire chains and arriving in blizzard conditions with no snow clothes, so we scrapped plans for Zermatt in favor of lower-elevation areas. However, last week while staying near Lake Geneva, we saw the weather improving so we put Zermatt back on the itinerary and made our way here. In short, we almost did not get to see the entire reason I wanted to come to this county.

This morning, I started the day with a run up the Matterhorn trail, which goes up the steep sides of the canyon in front of the Matterhorn and passes 17th-century barns with sheep grazing on the hillsides. Zermatt is filled with barns and structures from the 16th and 17th centuries that are little houses with huge slate tiles for roofs, perched on stone foundations that raise them 4 to 5 feet off the ground.

Example of historical barns and buildings from 16th-17th century

A crazy patchwork of ladders and stairs allow access for the gnomes who must have lived there at some time in the past.

Ladder and door on a 16th-century barn

The trail is almost impossibly picturesque. I was allegedly running (the high-altitude air and steep terrain made me take a lot of walking breaks), but I couldn’t help stopping every few minutes to take another picture with my little camera. The sky in this valley is intensely blue and clear, due largely to the fact that the city banned all motor vehicles many years ago to avoid air pollution that would obscure the views of the Matterhorn from town. Instead of cars, little electric shuttles buzz around the town center like bugs, ferrying people to various parts of town (although, in truth, you can easily walk to anywhere in this small town).

View of Southern Alps toward Italy

I ran up toward the base of the Matterhorn and was surprised to see a little settlement called Z’Mutt. (Zermatt, Z’Mutt … I detect a pattern here.) Numerous historic barn-like structures, which look like troll houses, contained a few restaurants. Not many were open when I ran by, but I just loved the idea that you could hike a couple of miles up this steep trail and be rewarded with a beer and a pizza. I think I’ll try to force-march the kids up here tomorrow. (We were going to take the train to the base of the ski area for a view, but I found out that the train ride, like everything else in Switzerland, is absurdly expensive. The cost is about $70 per adult and half off for kids. The idea of spending $210 to see a pretty view that I can pretty much run up to see was not too exciting.) Besides, the forced march will do the kids good, I tell myself.

When I came back to the hotel room after my run, the sun was still shining and I couldn’t help but say to the kids over and over while pointing out the window to the great snowy horn-shaped peak in the sky, “It’s the Matterhorn!” When that wore out, I started on the song (the theme song to my Venice video), “Whassa matta-you” but changed it to, “Whassa matta-horn.”  The kids found it funny, or at least put up with me. At least I know they were happy since I was so goofy happy.

Kyle (and Colly below) getting ready for the ascent on the Matterhorn in the background

There are not too many days that are so special you know you will remember them the rest of your life, but today was one of those days.  Had we been here a week ago, it would have been snowing and cloudy and we would not have even been able to see the Matterhorn.  Sometimes, things just have a way of working out, and we have to remind ourselves that they do.

Kyle making friends with rodents in the town square.

We started this 11-month trip in Telluride, which is also a stunningly beautiful part of the word and similar to Zermatt, and it seems to make cosmic sense that we are winding down the trip in Switzerland. I will miss days like this when we return, but know that the days like today are special because they are rare, precious and beautiful.

Nighttime in Zermatt

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  1. Lars Lavender, May 24, 2010:

    Was so delighted to read you made it to Zermatt and the Matterhorn was all that you thought it would be. The pics of Colly & Kyle on the climbing wall with the Matterhorn backdrop=teriffic!!!

  2. Kia, May 24, 2010:

    ahhhhh…..I have been waiting a return to Zermatt since I was 18. I know feel more compelled than ever to get there. Beautiful, Morgan!

  3. Kate Faust, May 24, 2010:

    LOVE this, Morgan. Don’t even know you, but I know Sarah and your kids and have tears in my eyes reading your excellent description of your “rare, precious and beautiful day”. My mother has a friend in Zermatt, visits every chance she gets, and your beautiful post helped me to realize why. Thank you! Hope to meet you when you’re back in Piedmont.

  4. Martha Howard, May 24, 2010:

    mmmmmmm…I can almost feel and smell it. Your words and photos, so beautiful! Thank you, thank you, thank you Smith family for sharing and taking me away to all these amazing places!!

    Love you gus -


  5. Bob Redpath, May 25, 2010:

    Great photos and wonderful post! Makes me sorry we didn’t do more than a “drive through” of Switzerland. (Thank god for Google Earth — we’ve found our way so many times using it too.)

  6. Michelle saunders, May 25, 2010:

    This is one of my favorite places in the world, but I have never seen the Matterhorn without ANY clouds around it! You are so lucky. And z’mutt is the best after making it up that trail. Sounds amazing. can’t wait to see you in June! Xoxo – Michelle.

  7. Cheryl, May 25, 2010:

    Soooo..no roller coaster?? lol!! Totally gorgeous landscape…what an amazing place to wind down your trip!

  8. David W. Lavender, May 25, 2010:


    I’ll echo Bob–great photos and a wonderful post. Brought back memories of my own (too brief) stay in the environs of the Matterhorn. You didn’t mention your teeth (your problems with which I learned from an email from Sarah). Welcome to middle age (at some point, we’ll have to swap dental horror stories). For now, I’m just glad that the landscape has distracted you sufficiently!

    Again, thanks for sharing your impressions. Enjoyed this post a lot!

  9. Sarah Soule, May 30, 2010:

    It seems most appropriate that I read this on the morning of the Vermont City Marathon, a race you participated in four years ago today. I loved reading this, and like you, U2′s Beautiful Day is, hands down, one of my most favorite tunes, ever. It’s clear that your time in Zermatt will forever be etched in your memory and will always be better than the ride at Disneyland! Great post. xoxoxo Sayso

  10. Mimi, May 30, 2010:

    Morgan – Thanks for the mountaintop I’ve never seen due to clouds. The ancient cabins are fascinating to see, especially inside. I hope you will focus on this beautiful experience while you finish up the tooth stuff. Love you, Mom

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