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November 2002 * 11/24/02
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By Regina Malan
Zermatt, high in the Swiss Alps, has a shadow. And it has two faces.
On the surface it's a busy ski-resort where modern tourists gather. Dressed in their fashionable skiing-gear they take the cogwheel train to the summits.
High up, at the Gornergrat, they pile out onto the white snow, their bright blue, red and yellow jackets catching the sharp rays of the sun. Their voices are clear and merry in the early morning.
But turn the picturesque town's face around and you see other facets. The temporary walks hand in hand with the eternal; the busy modern world is balanced by an old-worldly contentment.
The snow-capped peak of the Matterhorn is the first thing you notice when you leave the station building in Zermatt. Wherever you turn in this town, the Matterhorn is a presence. Covered in snow even in summer, it rises high above the town and demands attention with its glittering whiteness.
But it is also this mountain that casts a shadow over the town.
An epitaph in the small cemetery next to the town church reads:
me go climb these virgin snows
It is the epitaph of one Jonathan Henry Conville. This young Englishman died at 27 years when he measured his strength against the Matterhorn.
He is only one in a long line of deceased mountain climbers. The grave of Charles Hudson is also there. On the 14th July 1865, when the Matterhorn was ascended for the first time, Hudson, only 19 years old, died with three teammates on their return from the summit.
Another epitaph reads: your love of the mountains determined your fate. One can only wonder at this kind of passion that drives some people. A passion so intense that it even determines their time of death.
The Matterhorn will always fascinate mountaineers. Year after year they visit Zermatt, almost like a pilgrimage, to challenge the heights that give so little but take so much. In the Alpine museum in the town, one can follow the history of efforts to climb the mountain.
But Zermatt is more than the mountain and mountaineers. It is also a fairytale town where gaily coloured dwarfs guard over vegetable gardens and where flowers tumble abundantly over containers against the walls of houses and hotels.
As a visitor you can participate in the full glory of summer. Zermatt has more summer ski-tracks than any other resort in Switzerland. Cable cars can transport you to the Little Matterhorn 4 000 metres above sea level. It is the highest cable station in Europe. From here the skiers walk through tunnels to the ski-tracks.
Or you can take the cogwheel train to the Gornergrat. A well-known station along the way is the Monte Rosa. This peak has also taken its toll of lives, as told by the tombstones in the small cemetery.
Shops that specialize in ski equipment abound. But beware, the town is not cheap. Clothes, skiing gear, souvenirs, restaurants - the quality is high, but so are the prices.
Even if you aren't interested in mountaineering or skiing, Zermatt offers a lot to the tourist.
The very first thing you notice, is the absence of motor cars. Going to Zermatt, you can leave your car at the little town of Brig and take a train into the mountains. Glimpses of turquoise rivers and lakes contrasted with snow-capped mountain peaks literally take your breath away.
You disembark at Zermatt's station where small vehicles, driven silently by battery power, take passengers and their luggage to the hotels. The Hotel Zermatterhof even has its own horse-drawn coach for this purpose. For the rest, your two feet will take you through town.
Walking through the narrow streets, you see rickety wooden houses on poles, kept together by a prayer and a few nails. They stand so close together and are so intertwined that they resemble a three-dimensional puzzle. And inevitably there are the flowers. Europeans express their joy of summer in the profusion of petunias, geraniums and lobelias cascading from the walls of buildings.
In a souvenir shop you buy an old-fashioned music box that plays Edelweiss when you pick it up. And to take some memories with you, you can buy flower seeds - Edelweiss, Alpen violets and other small flowers that need snow or frost to grow.
Luxury shops sell the latest fashionable Swiss watches. Upmarket boutiques lure the modern, affluent tourist with their designer clothes.
But then, in between these high fashion shops, you find an small, dark shop selling wooden masks of mountain spirits. They vary from ugly to darn ugly. Old men with long, unkempt beards, toothless witches with thin algae hair. One wonders, are they good spirits from the mountains who guard the town and its people, or are they bad spirits looking for something evil to do?
At a small canteen you buy a pancake as big as the moon, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. As you bite deeply into the delicious sweetness, there's a stirring behind you in the street.
And there he is. A pastoral little figure. A young boy, hat on his head, herding his flock of mountain goats right through the town's main street on his way home.
Everybody makes way for the goats, fat and satisfied from grazing on the lush grass and field flowers on the mountain slopes. With tinkling bells around their necks, they occupy the whole street, but nobody minds making way. The twenty first century visitor secretly delights in this idyllic remnant from a bygone era.
This is Zermatt then. Town of modern visitors, but also of old habits; town of hamburgers and long beers, but also of dwarfs and mountain spirits; town of the intense passion to reach new heights, but also the town of silent graves that testify of man's impermanence.
The Matterhorn guards over the contrast between the temporary and the eternal in Zermatt. In the silent little cemetery a memorial has been erected for the deceased mountaineers. The words on the memorial unite the two worlds:
mountain they lost their lives
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