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Pioneering Years in the Shadow of the Matterhorn

The evolution of Zermatt from a farming village to a renowned holiday destination started with a man named Seiler. Get ready for a journey through time that’ll take you back more than 150 years!

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Majestic and breathtaking, it juts up into the sky like a giant pyramid with scarily steep sides. Any child in the local area will be able to tell you that the mountain is 4478 metres above sea level at its peak. Zermatt’s landmark gives off an incredible energy that you can sense when it is hidden behind the clouds on a grey and gloomy day. “The Matterhorn never stops having an impact on you – even when it has been the backdrop to your life for decades. It changes in the moment, with different colours being reflected in different light,” says André Seiler, General Manager of the Hotel Mont Cervin Palace, a family-run business in its fifth generation.

Long before crowds of tourists started flocking to Zermatt, courageous mountaineers became obsessed with the idea of conquering this spectacular peak with its impressive topographic prominence of 1031 metres. There were 18 attempts at climbing to the top of the Matterhorn between 1857 and 1865, but none of them were successful. That is until Brit Edward Whymper refused to give up on his quest. Not even a fall of 60 metres was enough to put him off. On 14 July 1865 at 13:40, he finally stood right at the top of the mountain as the leader of a rope team of seven. He had started his challenging journey in Zermatt on 12 July and taken the route via the Hörnligrat. Sadly, that’s not the end of the story. Four of Whymper’s cohort paid the ultimate price for their mountain triumph and lost their lives on the way back down.

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Ever since, there has been an air of fascination and fear surrounding the elevated mountain region. If you ever visit the Matterhorn Museum, make sure you take a look at the safety rope used in the daring first climb. A shiver may well run down your spine. But this museum just by the church in the centre of the village has so much more to offer than just the Matterhorn. It takes visitors all the way back to 1850, when Zermatt was but a simple farming village, offering a glimpse into the old houses and the lives of people back then, including farming families, tradesmen who used to cross the Alps with laden pack animals, mountain guides and mountaineers who travelled from far and wide. The hotel trade really kicked off in Zermatt back in 1839, when surgeon Josef Lauber opened a guest house with six guest beds. In 1852, State Councillor Josef Anton Clemenz from Visp followed suit with 14 beds at the Hotel Mont Cervin.

And yet Alexander Seiler had the biggest impact on Zermatt back in the day. Born in 1819, he and his brother Franz took over the accommodation from Josef Lauber in 1853 and reopened it as the Hotel Monte Rosa in 1855. By the time Seiler died in 1891, he had amassed a small empire consisting of the Mont Cervin, the Zermatterhof and the Grandhotel Riffelalp with an unbeatable view of the Matterhorn. “Sure, decadently luxurious hotels with a huge focus on wellness are wonderful and all that. But do you know what they don’t have that the traditional Zermatt establishments have in spades? Personality!” says André Seiler, a direct descendant of the visionary himself. Seiler’s favourite spot at the Mont Cervin Palace is the lobby bar, where the open fire crackles and the pianist tinkles the ivories. “Peak season here is in the winter and the atmosphere is unique, reserved just for this type of establishment,” he says.

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Zermatt may be a popular tourist destination when the weather turns colder now, but it took a while to make that happen in the winter as well as the summer. The legendary Alexander Seiler worked hard to attract tourists to the village when it was coated in a blanket of snow. Reverend Christopher Smyth, one of the first people to climb the Dufour Peak, for example, took him up on his offer of opening up the Hotel Monte Rosa to anyone who wanted to explore Zermatt during the winter in 1862. Smyth actually briefly wrote in the guest book that his ink had frozen when he had been writing in the lounge. In 1883, 19 members of the Geneva contingent of the Swiss Alpine Club stayed in Zermatt for a short while. Four years later, Leslie Stephen, President of the British Alpine Club between 1866 and 1869, enjoyed ten blue-skied days in Zermatt in the winter and caused quite a stir amongst people back home when he shared his experience.

When Dr Hermann Seiler, another descendant of pioneering hotelier Alexander Seiler, boldly started the first proper winter season without a train link in 1927, 180 Brits arrived and were warmly welcomed with local folk music. That caught the attention of the President of the Supervisory Board for the Visp-Zermatt-Bahn railway. Having taken Seiler up on his invitation, he declared: “Zermatt in winter is a revelation for me!” The following year, trains finally made their way through the snow and ice to and from the village, even though the speed was a bit limited. The global economic crisis in 1929 and the Second World War that raged on in Europe until May 1945 slowed down Zermatt’s evolution to become a winter tourist destination but couldn’t put a stop to it altogether. And so the vision of Alexander Seiler did still end up being brought to life.

Words Alex Kühn

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