Last week I rode the train from Brig, Switzerland, up the zigzagging Matter Valley. Shut into narrow passages by monumental peaks, the communities across this landlocked country have nature-made fortresses – mountains – to protect them. It’s easy to understand why the Swiss have been so successful at preventing any unwanted enemy advances.
The trains and funiculars that get you to the towns along the route defy a lot of ideas about where you can and can’t lay track. And, unlike other rural, high-elevation regions around the globe, road-born transport is secondary here. I laud the Swiss for their ingenuity and extreme ambitions when it comes to boring through rock or blasting away a pesky outcropping of earth. Seeing the transport mix here only reinforced my belief that the Swiss more often than not get things right.
At the head of the Matter Valley is Zermatt, one of Europe’s best-known ski towns. Each year nearly two-million people visit this tiny community to climb, hike, paraglide, sled or simply take in the views. Usually such volume of tourism would mean that streets are clogged with cars and tour buses. Such is not the case here.
The residents in Zermatt decided long ago that they didn’t want the city overrun with fossil-fuel vehicles so they banned them. That means that every car you see, with the exception of a few service and emergency vehicles, is powered by electricity. And even these are few and far between. But strewn about the gullies and couloirs of this alpine wonderland is just about every other sort of way to get around.
Cog trains (with special traction gears) take you from valley floor to ridge top in minutes, ascending 2,000 metres. From there you can hop on a gondola, tram or chairlift and climb even higher. A mix of T-bars, moving carpets and even escalators fills in the blind spots, meaning no piste is left un-skied.
The means of mobility are abundant, but your standard car is nowhere to be seen. And it’s not recent warnings about global climate change that has precipitated this. A road to Zermatt does indeed exist (and it has for years) but those who want to drive to this place can only get their cars to the neighbouring village. That’s where visitors leave their wheels and hop a train up the hill.
Adjacent to the train track is an old road. Single lane in places, the tarmac looks worn and less than ample for the community that it leads to. For some time there’s been a debate over whether the road should be updated and brought into compliance with the high safety standards elsewhere in the country. For now it sits there, barely used, just the right amount of access to somehow keep the mountains full with skiers and the world at bay.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.