We throw the term ‘iconic’ around pretty freely these days, but sometimes there really is no other word.
As with the Opera House and Sydney, or the Eiffel Tower and Paris, the Matterhorn is recognised around the world as the emblem of Switzerland. A natural pyramid, its four dizzyingly steep faces converge in a sky-piercing apex.
The pointy summit, 4,478 metres above sea level, was first scaled in 1865, and during the 150 years since then more than 500 mountaineers have lost their lives on the Matterhorn’s slopes. That’s double the number who have died on Everest. Yet such is the mountain’s allure that, undeterred by this figure, more than 3,000 climbers are drawn here each year.
For most of us though, our closest encounter with this iconic landmark is when we break the ‘peaks’ off a bar of Toblerone chocolate — their triangular shape was inspired by the Matterhorn’s distinctive profile.
There is another way to experience this legendary mountain without getting out the ropes and crampons. The best views of the Matterhorn can be enjoyed from the Gornergrat Cog Railway — Europe’s highest open-air rack railway. Here are some tips for taking the Gornergrat Cog Railway.
Leaving from the attractive ski-resort town of Zermatt, and climbing to a height of 3,089 metres, this intensely scenic journey makes for a wonderful half-day excursion. The half hour trip on the Gornergrat Cog Railway itself can be done in one go, or broken at any of the four stops on the journey from Zermatt to Gornergrat. Sit on the right as you travel upwards and you will be treated to spectacular views of the Matterhorn and 28 other 4,000-metre peaks, as well as some mighty glaciers.
We find ourselves compulsively snapping photos all the way up, as the extraordinary shape of the Matterhorn looms closer and closer. However, the best view, of course, is at the very top.
Everyone wants to have their picture taken with an icon and the managers of the Gornergrat site have obliged by building a tiered set of steps that allows visitors to be photographed with the Matterhorn at exactly the right height and angle. We step off the train to find that these steps have been taken over by a tour group waving a forest of selfie sticks. Luckily, Gornergrat provides 360 degrees of incredible views, so there’s plenty to look at while waiting for your chance at the perfect mountain selfie.
We stop to admire the work of an artist who is both producing and selling his wares at the scene. Matt, originally from Yorkshire, has been painting the Matterhorn for more than twenty years. ‘I never get tired of it,’ he says. ‘The light changes constantly, and I’m always trying to capture a different mood.’ To make it your life’s work to paint one mountain — that’s a tribute to the power of this extraordinary landscape.
Facilities at Gornergrat are excellent. There are gift shops, restaurants, and terraces where you can enjoy both the panoramic view and the sun (said to shine 300 days a year here).
A network of trails provides super-scenic routes for walking and mountain-biking in summer, and ‘white hiking’ and snow-shoe trekking in winter. The Cog Railway does the work of a chairlift for skiers, and Rotenboden (one stop down from Gornergrat) is home to Switzerland’s highest toboggan run.
It’s autumn during our visit and we decide to break the return rail journey at the second stop — Riffelberg. The historic Hotel Riffelhaus, which dates from 1853, is closed between its summer and winter seasons but we’re content simply to wander along one of the marked hiking paths, enjoying a different perspective of the Matterhorn and its mighty mountain companions. The absolute purity of the all-white Gornergrat view is tempered here by a palette of earth and plant colours. Brown furze, green and purple mosses, and tiny red alpine flowers decorate the foreground, while the background is given over to snow and rock.
Once back on the Railway, we complete the journey back to Zermatt through the gentler surroundings of larch and pine forests, after an unforgettable morning in one of Europe’s most beautiful — and yes, iconic — landscapes.
Do you have any tips for taking the Gornergrat Cog Railway in Switzerland? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, Roslyn studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.