Mountain Awe and Nude Spas in Zermatt
For our one-year wedding anniversary, Raunaq and I decided it was high time to visit Zermatt, the famous tiny village that sits in the shadow of the even more famous Matterhorn. We have yet to ski in the Swiss Alps, but after this winter weekend trip, we finally, finally, saw the light. And as a bonus, I left the town feeling just a little more Swiss than when we arrived.
Zermatt, in the Valais region, is fairly easy to get to from Zurich - two hours on a InterCity train to Visp, then a transfer to the cute and creaky Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. I’m learning that most places in Switzerland take no longer than a couple of hours, and I’m always reminded of that scene in Clueless when Cher’s dad asserts that “everywhere in LA takes 20 minutes.” You can get pretty much anywhere in this country in three hours or less. We traveled from Zurich, which is 40-minutes from the German border, all the way across the country to this small southern town on the Swiss-Italian border, in three hours.
Zermatt itself manages to be both a glitzy ski resort and a picturesque alpine village, tucked away in the mountains and filled with charming Swiss chalets. We walked through town to our hotel (all of Zermatt is car-free), and I was immediately distracted by the sound of...sleigh bells? An old-fashioned carriage pulled by two prancing horses was right behind me. The whole town is like this - flawlessly embodying the image of winter in every way.
The Matterhorn is more striking in person than I ever could have imagined. I’m a Southern California kid, and my earliest (and only, until I moved to Switzerland) association with the mountain was the Disneyland ride it inspired. Once I saw it, I was simply shocked at how hypnotically beautiful it was, lording over the valley and dominating the skyline. The Matterhorn is the most photographed mountain in the world, but honestly, even the best pictures don’t do it justice.
The name means “Peak in the Meadows,” and that is what makes the Matterhorn so dramatic. Its a monolith, standing solitary on it’s own. It’s a towering crooked triangle of a peak, distinctly separate from the rest of the mountain range. It’s a myth and emblem for alpinists. And for all you Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fans out there, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Sorting Hat and Gandalf’s wizard hat. And yes, Raunaq made me pose so that it looked like I was wearing the Matterhorn as a hat.
There’s a view of it from every spot in town - unless you mistakenly book a “Mountain view” hotel room instead of a “Matterhorn view” room. It’s a bit of a sneaky move, but don’t assume that when hotels say mountain view they mean the mountain view. They don’t. Spring for the room that specifies the Matterhorn view, it’s 1000% worth it. We got lucky with clear blue skies on Saturday, and spent the afternoon lounging in the sun on our hotel balcony, drinking Dôle wine and eating cheese from Valais while the Matterhorn kept watch.
One of the most unexpected delights was that our hotel, Hotel Bristol, had a fancy spa area that was free for hotel guests. There was a traditional dry sauna, a Finnish sauna, a super steamy steam room (that had a lovely eucalyptus scent and little twinkly lights embedded in the ceiling), an infrared room we were too intimidated to try, foot baths, and an Tyrolean bucket shower. After sweating it all out, you stand underneath a large wooden bucket, pull a chain lever, and try not to scream from the thermal shock as ice cold water courses over you.
It was relaxing and revitalizing, especially after a freezing day outside in the snow. But also unexpected - we walked into the spa in our robes and bathing suits to see that we were entering a “naked area.” There were little pictures of a man and women wearing swimmers, with a big X across them, on the wall by the sauna entrance. Obligatory nudity. It was a clothing-free co-ed spa.
Attitudes around nudity vary all over the world, and in Germanic and Nordic countries, nude spas are quite normal. Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked by this, and I’m not conservative in the least, but this was my first mixed naked spa experience. You can never predict when little cultural differences will manifest themselves, and my American awkwardness toward nudity was no different.
But what else could I do, besides pluck up my courage, take a breath, and shrug off my towel with (what I hope was) an air of nonchalance? It’s just a body! It felt bizarre and weird, but after a few minutes, I finally stopped concentrating on the nakedness and just relaxed. Liberating as it is, though, it does take some getting used to walking around with your bits hanging out.
And even though I vaguely recognized people the next day at the hotel breakfast, I just tried to act normal, eating my eggs and pretending we hadn’t seen each other naked the day before. But for my first time going au natural, I think I did pretty good. We went back the second night, and I felt like a seasoned Swiss pro. Embracing the European lifestyle, bit by exposed bit!
Since we still haven’t got around to those ski lessons, on our second day, we opted to hike from the center of the town to the top of the slopes. When everyone else was taking the funicular up and skiing down, we were going to walk it. The trail had a vertical ascent of nearly 900 meters (almost 3000 feet!) that took us from Zermatt to the Sunnega ski summit. It wound up through the snow-blanketed forest, under gnarled Swiss stone pines, before flattening out for a long stretch with Zermatt getting smaller and smaller below.
Hiking in the snow is tough, and we both were quickly sweating right through our jackets. It turns out we were on the “Matterhorn Training trail.” That made us both feel a little more hardcore, and a little less like senior citizens out on a winter stroll. Raunaq kept hearing faint cracking sounds that he thought were far away avalanches, but we can’t be sure. I choose this hike specifically for the sweeping Matterhorn views, but we got unlucky with the weather - the mountain was obscured by clouds and fog the entire day. Our Toblerone bar came in handy, though, as a quick replacement.
**side note: Have you ever noticed the bear in the Toblerone icon? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it!**
There was one point in the trail, over halfway through, where we came across hiking signs that had been intentionally covered up with tarp. Ruh-roh. Neither of us were that keen to turn around, and slip and slide our way down 600 meters of icy trail. I was a bit nervous that the trail was closed, but we pressed on. We soon passed another person shoe-showing and immediately felt more comfortable. It’s funny how simply the sight of another warm body can calm your nerves. That person could have easily been more lost than we were!
We arrived in the hamlet of Findeln, on the south facing slope of Sunnega, accessible by footpath or by ski piste. The authentic larch timber houses, now mainly holiday homes and restaurants, used to be the summer homes of Valais farmers. These Maiensäss (seasonal) settlements, like Findeln, represent the once-traditional Swiss style of farming to the rhythm of the seasons.
Farmers ascended and descended daily between the village and the alp, and had accommodation at every elevation. They would drive their cattle up from the valley floor to graze for the season, stay at Findeln, and make cheese from the milk to be sold in Zermatt and throughout the country. Settlements like these are an important part of cultural heritage to the people of Valais. Now, this area is known as the Findeln Gourmet Pass, with legendary chalet restaurants like Chez Vrony.
By this point in the hike, we were officially in skiing territory. And the skiing. Looked. AWESOME. I’m not sure why it took so long for us to realize this, but being at the top of this mountain really hammered it home - we need to ski in Switzerland. I don’t think I really need to describe why. It’s the Alps. We get it now. We will ski. But probably not in Zermatt until next year, though. Let’s just say people weren’t snow-plowing their way down the pistes. Everyone seemed to be really, really, really good, and having an absolute blast zipping down the runs.
And just to prove that there is simply no such thing as too many mountain views, the next day we took the world’s slowest fast train, the Glacier Express, all the way from Zermatt to St. Mortiz. Nine hours of panoramic views as you travel the near entirety of the Swiss Alps. I realize this contradicts my earlier three-hour statement, but this particular trip is far more about the journey than the destination.
It’s easy to get caught up in Zermatt’s appeal, from the Matterhorn to the world-class skiing to the wintry charm of the village itself. I can’t wait to come back in the summer, and especially next winter, when we will can put our fledgling skiing skills to the test. It’s quintessentially Swiss, filled with history, and can be as exciting or relaxing (or hey, naked!) as you want it to be.