After the successful completion of the TMB hike, we rested up at Le Grand Champ for a further two rainy nights. We tasked ourselves with the necessary jobs of laundry, photo-sorting and rest. But we also had an eye towards our next mini-adventure, so were cooking up a few ideas. After some deliberation, Switzerland was put on our agenda.
We left on a quiet Sunday morning, stocked up in a busy SuperU then headed east towards Switzerland. We drove back through Chamonix, Argentière and Trient, spotting many places we had recently walked, before climbing up towards Martigny. A few kilometres and many hairpins later, we were duly summoned into Switzerland with a bored look and a casual swipe of the arm at the nominal border point. Tall stone terraces bursting with vines and soft fruits, predominantly apricots, lined the steep valley sides. We dropped drastically to the valley floor and on long straight roads made easy progress. This part of Switzerland was more business than pleasure. Dominated by light-industrial sheds and strips of garishly-coloured store fronts heavy with parking areas accessed by over-wide roads, it looked much more American than European.
We turned off towards Zermatt, heading south through a series of villages on the only road into the valley. We considered stopping in a cheaper aire in Täsch, nearer to Zermatt, but on inspection it was only the back corner of a car-park, behind a garage on a busy section of road, so we passed on it and doubled back to Campsite Attermenzen to overnight. The site was an open field, so siting was entirely at your own discretion. We picked out a quiet spot on a small plateau behind the main field and set up a cosy camp. As it was only 2.30pm we had a decent portion of day left, so made the decision to quickly grab our bikes out of the garage and go see Zermatt immediately. 20 mins later we were organised and away, assuming the 9km route there would be a simple jolly along a cycle-path by the river.
It started well, in bright sunshine, rolling through the centre of Täsch, but soon after the track crossed the railway and rose steeply up through the forests on the opposite slope. We faced a steep, difficult and technical ascent, a narrow dirt trail with gnarly roots, large boulders and overhanging nettles. Whilst we thought we had had a decent, active summer, filled with swimming, running and hiking, we soon found our fitness for this type of off-road cycling was sadly lacking. With lungs bursting and legs screaming for mercy, we had to dismount and walk portions of the trail on several occasions, decrying our inability to get up the track on our bikes. We had underestimated the cycle, judging it by the short distance and not thinking of the height differential. But we made it into Zermatt eventually.
Our first impressions of Zermatt were not great. We had visualised a cutesy ski-resort, wonderfully car-free, all stone, timber and glass, in a comforting cauldron of snow-speckled mountains. Instead we entered by a rough, debris-strewn building site, both sides of the road lined with dirty piles of stones, discarded bent materials and desolate-looking buildings. It was a disturbing and rather grim first impression, but we were very soon distracted from it all by our first sighting of the incredibly imposing Matterhorn, standing tall behind fast-moving clouds. We followed the river and cycled straight through to the southern edge of town for a closer look, stopping near an Activity Park to take in views of the iconic mountain. Yet even here the parks were lined with red builder’s tape, degrading the view.
We pushed our bikes through the glitzy, kitschy, touristy centre, the busy streets lined with top-end branded stores and expensive hotels. We passed neat churches, almost apologetically nestled into tiny corners, their importance lessened in the face of the new, dominant religion of commerce. Visitors mingled with quirky locals in national dress, popping in and out of cafés and souvenir stores selling the usual T-shirts and tea towels. We heard mostly German being spoken, but smatterings of French, English, Spanish and Japanese completed the cultural melting pot. At one point a herd of long-haired goats were driven through the streets by young teenagers, dodging the constantly buzzing electric hotel taxis, looking more like a scene from Nepal than Switzerland. We cycled on, passing yet more hotels and shops in traditional timber and stone, with an ever-present snowy mountain backdrop framing each view.
We’d been lucky with the weather, as the forecast had suggested thunderstorms in the afternoon. But grey clouds were now gathering overhead and the air changed; rain was brewing. We decided to stick to the road going back, and found it a fantastically long, sweeping downhill for most of the way. We reached Täsch in minutes, flowing at over 50km/hr, definitely enjoying this direction more. Large, slow drops of rain plopped on us and the smooth road surface as we passed through the town, threatening much more. We pushed on to reach our campsite with only moments to spare before the main deluge finally arrived, with us safely back under cover. We packed away our bikes, made tea and chilled for the rest of the evening, feeling glad we had decided to make the effort to quickly visit Zermatt.
We set an early alarm, had a quick breakfast and got our boots on before 8am, as the forecast was for more storms. We wanted to complete a circular hike, from the nearby village of Randa, and to visit and cross what was reported to be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It was still chilly when we left, the sun slow in rising and not yet having warmed the air. We first passed through the traditional timber buildings of Randa, enjoying the colourful vegetable patches and hanging baskets decorating the houses. We filled our water bottles from a spring in the village then started our ascent via a narrow street between ancient timber hay barns. We rose quickly on steep, rooted paths through the woodland, our legs dealing easily with the gradient after the gruelling miles of the TMB.
We were all alone when we reached the 500m long Charles Kuonen Hängbrücke, the suspension bridge, so we had the fortunate opportunity to play around and take a few photos and videos. We then crossed over, apprehensive at one short portion that looked only loosely connected and rather shaky, but made it safely across. From there we walked further up the mountain to the Europahütte refuge at 2220m, guarded by a huge resting black dog that eyed us suspiciously. The view from their verandah was quite spectacular, but we didn’t linger. Instead we climbed a further few hundred metres through a boulder field to reach a classic picnic spot with an unbeatable view of three separate glaciers. We sat a while, eating apples and soaking up the view with only the sound of calling birds to distract us.
There was the possibility of continuing around the mountain and returning to Randa by a different route, but instead we retraced our steps past the Europahütte and down to the suspension bridge, this time passing under the northern end and dropping quickly downwards. Another steep woodland path led us down past a few groups of walkers now struggling upwards, until eventually levelling out in rolling grassy meadows back near to Randa. We paused a while on a lonely red bench to eat sandwiches and take in the overview of the village. We said goodbyes to neighbouring horses and descended to the village church, circled the beautifully kept cemetery, then continued back to camp. Our wonderfully fresh morning walk was a hilly 12km, taking the best part of four hours, with almost 1000m of ascent.
Our afternoon was spent doing little more than people-watching and gentle stretching on the grass, until the dark clouds rolled back in overhead and drove us inside. It was here we made the decision that it was best for us to move on, and that meant a return to France. We had business to attend to back in Limousin. In less than two weeks’ time, our new house purchase would complete, so our slow march westward now begins and our new responsibilities await.