It’s difficult to describe Zermatt in a way that manages to convey the strange majesty of the place. This tiny Swiss village is packed to the rafters with people on ski holidays, hikers and tourists, and yet, has managed to retain its twisting alleyways and characteristic brown chalets. It sits in the shadow of the enormous, mysterious, Matterhorn mountain; a sight that has to be seen to be understood.
Naturally it is the mountains that draw so many people in to Zermatt for group ski holidays, and with 313km of downhill skiing across the 59 peaks served by 40 ski lifts, offering beginner’s slopes near the village, intermediate and advanced runs further up the mountain and even heli-skiing; Zermatt is certainly well-suited to ski holidays. But people come for a ski holiday, and return for the atmosphere.
Certainly the Matterhorn casts its own strange magic across the village, but even without it, the dichotomy between the crowded, car-free streets and the vast Alpine landscape surrounding it make a visit to Zermatt worthwhile all in itself. This has not gone unnoticed, and during the high season (Christmas/New Year and February), Zermatt contains nearly 20,000 people seeking ski holidays, mountain biking, hiking and the Matterhorn in a village comprised of only 5 or 6 streets; a situation only made tolerable by the absence of cars.
The ban on wheels is enforced with a dogged persistence by a dedicated police force, and anyone seen driving into Zermatt is immediately fined 100 Swiss Francs, no matter what excuse you have up your sleeve. Similarly, anyone caught cycling on the Bahnhofstrasse between the church and the train station is slapped with a fine of 50 Swiss Francs. Pedestrianisation is taken seriously in Zermatt which some find an inconvenience, most however find it refreshing.
Despite these strictly enforced prohibitions cars and bikes, there are silent, electric taxis that have a tendency to stalk unwitting pedestrians and bell-equipped horse drawn carriages that make you wish the taxis came with bells as well. If you’re lucky enough to score accommodation on the outskirts of the village where you can escape the crowded streets, the absence of traffic noise is a special silence.
Those looking for a budget ski holiday would do well to avoid Zermatt. Its excellent reputation and unique atmosphere have made it a decidedly upmarket skiing destination, and amongst the 600 or so hotels on offer, most are in the 239 Swiss Francs or above range, per night for two people. But if you can afford it, a family ski holiday to Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, amongst the chiming horse-drawn carriages and vigilantly fining policemen is truly something special.