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