What do you think of when you think of Switzerland? Cliche travel stereotypes like beautiful mountain ranges, velvety milk chocolate, cheese with holes in it and everyone skiing right? To knock over at least a few of those, how do you squeeze all of that into one trip? Luckily Switzerland isn’t massive and has a bloody good train network, making it a great candidate for a vast yet concise European jaunt.
I’d been to another part of Switzerland before (Basel), but I’d not seen the real “picture postcard” side of the country. I first thought “should I spend the weekend in Geneva or Zurich?” but not long after I knew I wanted to see the amazing peaks of the Swiss Alps, and this trip was born.
To do this, I utilised easyJet’s awesomely flexible route network to fly into Geneva on the Saturday morning and out of Zurich on the Sunday evening. In those two days, I saw some of the most picturesque countryside in Europe, stayed in the ski resort town of Zermatt and ascended 3800m to stand atop of the Matterhorn’s “little brother” on the Swiss/Italian border high up in the Alps.
Geneva to Zermatt
To be honest, I didn’t find Geneva that interesting. I took the train from the airport into town, walked around a bit in the old town and then got some lunch. It’d be cool if you’re interested in things like CERN or the United Nations, but I found it a bit plain. I got to exercise my Francophile-ness a bit but the last two hours of my time were spent in the train station waiting for my train that would take me half way across Switzerland.
As you move further from Geneva and into the centre of Switzerland, the French and German speaking parts of the country intertwine. Train announcements are suddenly in German; and French signage becomes more sparse, it’s quite intriguing.
The train from Geneva that will get you towards Zermatt only goes as far as a place called Brig, and before this you need to change trains at Visp onto a special train called the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. It’s on this train that you ride the steep cogwheel railway up through the winding valleys and deep into the mountains.
Winding through the mountains, making my way up to Zermatt.
Having arrived in Zermatt, I wandered around trying to find the hostel I’d booked. One thing became immediately apparent, it was almost dead silent. To maintain the tranquil vibe of the resort town, cars and anything with a petrol engine are banned. The only vehicles you see are small electric powered taxis/minivans that look more like golf carts, transporting people to and from their hotels.
I chose to stay at Hostelling International’s hostel in Zermatt. It’s located a bit further away from the main drag of Zermatt, but it’s located close to the lifts that will take you up to what I reckon is the main attraction. Dinner and breakfast were included, and were hearty and stodgy enough to sort me for a big day of high altitude. Beds start at £30, so it’s not the cheapest place, but this is Switzerland. The wifi is fast and free, but works in the main building only.
Waking up early on Sunday morning, I took a series of three lifts from Zermatt up to Klein Matterhorn to what is called the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (yeah, I know..) Up there, it’s 3800m high and you’ll take the highest lifts in Europe to get there.
Leaving Zermatt behind and climbing high up into the Alps
This was the view that I was greeted with as I looked up to where the cable car would take me on the final leg of my ascent. A blanket of thick cloud, which persisted for at least 5 minutes as we crept up the cable and my ears popped. Then all of a sudden, the cloud cleared, and this was what I was greeted with.
Complete visibility across the entire enormous valley and snow everywhere. I peeked out the window and saw how far down we would dive into the valley and then back up again to get to the summit and was quite take aback by where I was. It was like a complete other place compared to where I was 10 minutes earlier. A vantage that made me feel like I was in a scene out of the movie Cliffhanger.
On the summit
When we reached the craggy peak of Klein Matterhorn, the altitude started to hit me. I had to zip up my jacket as the temperature plunged to below zero. The air was thin up here, so I had to breathe more and not move around as fast.
As I took the lift to the observation deck and climbed the final steps to the summit, I felt extremely light headed and my heart began to race. I knew I was in trouble. I had to grab onto something with my cold and numb hands to stop from passing out. I’d never experienced anything like it.
I managed to sort myself out, but couldn’t stay up there long without having to sit down and take deep breaths. The speed at which I ascended from 1500m to 3800m knocked me for six.
After I came back down into the tunnel that runs through the mountain rock, I managed to catch my breath and recover from almost dying (I kid, I kid..) I made my way to another elevator, this time to go deep underground into the second main attraction of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the inside of the glacier itself which the summit of the mountain sits upon.
Actually walking around inside solid ice was pretty surreal. They’ve done a good job of carving out walkways and rooms inside the glacier and play some nice background music as you check the place out. There’s even an ice slide you can hurl yourself down!
The glacier was pretty cold, that was the recurring theme, so I was searching for some warmth and found it in the cafe. Perched near the start of the ski slopes that descend down into Italy, it’s a nice place to make the most of the CHF 90 it costs to come up here and enjoy a drink or a meal. I went for a beef goulash before deciding it was time to descend down the mountain, head back to Zermatt and get my train to Zurich.
Zermatt to Zurich
Taking the train back down from Zermatt, I reflected on how special and unique standing on the summit was. The subzero temperature and complete white-out above the clouds is such a contrast to the 18 degrees and lush greenness of Zermatt.
Changing trains once again in Visp, the journey to Zurich took about 2.5 hours that took me north through Switzerland. For at least 30 minutes we seemed to tunnel right through the centre of a mountain range. When your country is made up primarily of rugged alpine landscapes, i suppose you become good at getting over, around and through the mountains.
Arriving in Zurich, I was greeted by the gorgeous lake that sits smack bang in the centre of town. The many bridges that cross the river leading into it create a cosy waterway charm in the city.
The Zurich Tourism Information office in the train station offered up handy maps with self-guided walking tours of the old town within, which seemed like the best way to familiarise myself and get a feel for the second largest city in Switzerland.
Walking round Zurich, I felt like there was a lot more life here. More people in cafes, enjoying the weather, eating out and making the most of the Sunday. It felt way more bustling than Geneva was, and I immediately began to like Zurich more. The whole of the old town on both sides of the river took me about 3-4 hours to cover and during this time I had a massive bratwurst for lunch. Only in a country like Switzerland can you order a croissant for breakfast speaking French and get yourself a big sausage for lunch speaking German.
Returning to London
My flight back to London was at about 7pm, so I casually made my way to the station, peering into the many watch shops and dreaming about a £15,000 Tag Heuer along the way. As I drifted along the tracks to the airport, I thought about the very French feel in Geneva I’d seen on Saturday, the cold air on top of Klein Matterhorn earlier that Sunday morning and the laid back afternoon atmosphere of Zurich.
Switzerland is definitely a country with so many different aspects to it, and I was so glad I’d seen such a cross section of it in just one weekend.