“OK, We’re in Zermatt. Now What?”

I’m usually not attracted to places that are completely dedicated to tourism. That’s why I live in an area of Maui that’s off the beaten path for visitors to our island. And it’s why I decided to spend these two nights here in Brig, rather than in the much-better-known town of Zermatt. 

I went Zermatt today and, sure enough, it was wall-to-wall tourists. Most of them seemed to me to be a little bit lost, unsure what to do or where to go, even though just about everything there is geared to all those visitors: hotels, shops, restaurants, day tours … everything. I strolled through the main tourist area for a while, then headed for a nearby part of town that seemed to be less retail and was certainly a lot less crowded, no doubt as a result. Most of the buildings were little hotels, but at least they were traditional wood construction with window boxes stuffed with flowers. 

 Then I turned a corner and there, looming in the not-very-distant distance, was the Matterhorn. There was a bakery on that very corner and I sat down at a small table on the sidewalk, ordered an apfelkuchen and a double espresso, and spent almost three-quarters of an hour just contemplating that mountain. It’s magnificent, but there’s something ominous about it. Almost threatening. And that’s not surprising, really, because since the mid-1800s, more than 500 climbers have died on that peak. Sitting there staring at it, I could sure as hell see why.

 But the real reason for going to Zermatt is the train ride up there from Brig. Operated by the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, it’s not a long ride —  just about an hour and 20 minutes — but it takes you around curves with almost bottomless drop-offs right outside your window, and up grades as steep as 12 percent … meaning the train gains 12 feet in elevation for every 100 feet of horizontal distance. By comparison, an Amtrak locomotive pulling nine or ten Superliner cars would loose traction on a grade of just two or three percent. 

These Swiss trains have a cogwheel mechanism under the locomotives and the rail cars that lower and grip the “teeth” on a steel bar in the middle of the track. That’s how they do it, but let me tell you: on the way back down to Brig, you catch your breath when the train starts down one of those 12-percent grades!
So my advice is, by all means ride the Glacier Express and do make a point of seeing Zermatt and the Matterhorn. But consider spending a couple of nights in Brig and making Zermatt a day trip. I guarantee you’ll enjoy that spectacular ride up and back.