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Zermatt is a street at the bottom of a valley floor. Some will see it as a greening valley of picturesque and beautiful Swiss scenery. Others as a street of challenge.
At one end of the street is the railroad station, the only way into the valley unless you board a mule. There are no cars because there is no road. And there is little likelihood of a road as long as the will of the Le Chemin-de-fer de Brigue-Vi�ge and Zermatt be done. The B-V and Z has a railroad monopoly. It operates 28 miles of track which are level for the first seven miles, then rise 3,300 feet in the 21-mile stretch between Visp (or Vi�ge) and Zermatt.
Leaning over the street like an overbearing personality is the lean, bare, bony, skyscraping, knee-melting bulk of the Matterhorn, a 14,780-foot rock pyramid that has brought a lingering death from exhaustion to a score who have climbed it too fast, killed well over a hundred climbers outright, including four of the seven who first breached its summit. Less than a hundred years ago mountain peasants hadn't a doubt that it was the world's highest mountain, the home of the spirits who dwelled in the ruins of some metaphysical city at the top of its wave-shaped peak.
Green meadows carpet the sloping valley sides, wall to wall. In season they take on patterns from the Alpine flowers that grow, blue and white and orange, among the reeds of deep green grass. A rushing river, the Mattervisp, trundles north through the village en route to the Rhone, which hurries into the east end of Lake Geneva, then eddies out the west end and surges underground through the Jura until it reappears in France, courses through Lyons and spills finally into the Mediterranean near Marseilles.
Down in the crease of the valley, left and right along the street, are the larchwood chalets toasted tan by the Alpine sun. Tucked away among them are some 2,425 beds set aside for visitors, far more than Zermatt needs to accommodate its own population, which is 1,148.
But although barmaids have done it, a 12-year-old girl did it, an 82-year-old Swiss achieved it, a cat managed it and 1,200 climbers make it every year, you don't have to climb the Matterhorn to enjoy Zermatt. The first hotel was opened by Alexander Seiler, a Swiss soap salesman, in 1855, 10 years before the mountain was conquered and in an era when its eventual ascent was deemed an impossibility. Seiler had come to visit his brother, the Abb�, but he came away notably impressed with the tourists who visited the valley to pick mountain flowers and net butterflies, two of the more titillating endeavors of the day.
Seiler stayed for 60 years, became a close friend and confidant of the pioneers, a friend of the guides, a mourner of the Matterhorn's dead. Today the Seiler interests own six hotels in and around the crags of the valley, comprising 665 beds. The chain is threatened only by the municipality of Zermatt which itself owns seven hotels and inns with 310 beds. Star of the Seiler chain is the Mont Cervin, a gem of paneled d�cor and advanced plumbing right in the center of town. It charges about $10 for a room with a view, a private bath and three meals a day. Seller's Villa Margherita is small and exclusive, its Victoria old and Victorian, and its Monte Rosa, which dates from the first climbing days and adjoins Abb� Seller's original house, a favorite with climbers.
Like the commune, the Seilers operate a few small inns pasted up among the neighboring mountains which can be reached on foot or by daily mule train. One exception is the Riffelalp at 7,307 feet, which can also be reached by mountain railway, then by an Alpine tram which has one red car.
Among the commune's hotels located at the comparatively sane altitude of 5,315 feet, which is to say the mid-town level of Zermatt, is the large and elegant Zermatterhof and the eminently chalet-Swiss Walliserhof. I like to think of the Zermatterhof as elegant because I bear an indelible picture of its soign�e blue carriage filled with guests, newly acquired at the railroad station, careening through town, its tail-coated concierge standing on the lower step, hanging onto a pair of brass rails at the back door, supremely oblivious of a large herd of goats ambling and tinkling its way up the town's single street.
No matter where you stay at night you will almost surely be able to come by the fruits of the Valais, a Swiss canton nearly one-fifth covered by glacial ice. On real estate not frosted over, the Valaisans produce some eminent wines, among them Montibeux and Fendant. On the soil that's left they grow apricots and strawberries, dispatching a planeload of berries to England daily during the season.