The History of Zermatt in Switzerland


Today, Zermatt is one of the top ski resorts in Europe, if not the world, but how did it all begin? Has Zermatt always been a popular ski destination for the rich and famous, or has this only developed in recent times? Having visited the resort for the first time earlier this year and as I spend most days talking about the resort’s various chalets, I thought it would be interesting to look back in time and find out how Zermatt gained its international reputation.

A view over Zermatt and the Matterhorn  - Spectacular!<--break- />

From humble beginnings

Very little is known about the history of Zermatt prior to the 13th century. The first document mentioning the town dates from 1280 but under its former name of Praborno, yet documentation recording what it was like or how many inhabitants there were is scarce. As the Romance speaking region was gradually colonised by the German speaking people, Praborno was renamed as Zermatt and the earliest evidence of this is on a map dating from 1495. From that point on until the early 19th century, Zermatt was a poor, rural village whose inhabitants mainly worked on the land and visitors were few and far between. Zermatt is surrounded by some of Switzerland’s highest mountains and these were gradually being conquered by mountaineers and explorers in the early 1800s. As a result, tourism began to slowly develop from 1820 onwards and Dr Josef Lauber opened the first hotel in 1838 which he named the Hotel Cervin. Although he was an important figure in developing the early stage of tourism in Zermatt, two other men really held the key that transformed this farming village into a thriving destination for wealthy visitors from across the globe.  

The famous Monte Rosa hotel in Zermatt
The famous Monte Rosa hotel in Zermatt

For very different reasons, the development of Zermatt can be predominantly attributed to Alexander Seiler and Edward Whymper. The Seiler family are one of the most important in the resort’s history and it all began when Alexander arrived in Zermatt in 1851 and took over the lease of the Hotel Cervin in 1853. He had very little experience in the hotel trade, yet just one year later he  not only became

the outright owner of the Hotel Cervin, renaming it Hotel Monte Rosa, which is still popular today, he also took out a lease on the Riffelberg Hotel. Alexander Seiler had a vision that he wanted Zermatt to become a popular tourist destination and with the success of his hotels, he began to buy more and more land from the local farmers. In 1878 he embarked on a brand new project to build not just the best mountain hotel in Switzerland but the best in the whole of the Alps and this was to be known as the Hotel Riffelalp, located just on the hillside above the village centre.  

Conquering the Matterhorn

While Seiler had been developing Zermatt’s hotel trade, the resort had made its name on the European stage for another reason. When it came to conquering the mountains dominating the skyline around the village, the one that stood out by far was the Matterhorn. As people began to reach the summit of these other peaks, the Matterhorn was the one remaining challenge with several of Europe’s best climbers attempting to reach the summit. The British explorer Edward Whymper had tried and failed eight times to climb the infamous Matterhorn from the Italian side of the border, but in 1865 he decided to attempt it from the Swiss side, and would need to start his expedition in the village of Zermatt. Whymper joined forces with Reverend Charles Hudson who was also preparing an attempt, and along with two local guides, Peter Taugwalder father and son, a French guide Michel Croz, Lord Francis Douglas and Douglas Robert Hadow, the group of seven began their climb to the top of the Matterhorn in July 1865.

They were in direct competition with a group of Italians who had started out the day before from the Italian side and on 14th July, Whymper and his party won the race, becoming the first group of people to reach the summit  and conquer one of Europe's most famous mountains, standing at 4478m (14692ft) above sea level.   Sadly, the expedition became most well known by the fact that four of the climbers fell and died on the way down. Only Whymper and the two local guides, Peter Taugwalder and his son Peter Taugwalder Junior survived and completed the descent.

Zermatt in summer

This event put Zermatt firmly on the map and as a direct result of Whymper’s success on the Matterhorn, more and more people wanted to visit the village where it had all begun and to make their own attempt to conquer what remains as one of the great Alpine peaks. The development of the hotel trade under the careful vision of Alexander Seiler meant the capacity was there to welcome the visitors and together with the first ascent of the Matterhorn contributed towards making Zermatt a top summer destination.

The first winter season

After Alexander Seiler’s death in 1891, his family continued his vision and decided Zermatt would be the perfect place for winter sports as well as walking and mountaineering that were now firmly established summer activities. In 1908 they organised a special visit for the press to highlight the winter opportunities that the resort offered. However it wasn’t until 1928 that the first official winter season took place and from then on Zermatt grew even more in popularity. The Gornergrat railway that had been built for guests staying at the Hotel Riffelalp began operating more frequently and gradually more ski lifts and cable cars were built throughout the rest of the 20th century. Today it is one of the prime European destinations for skiing and attracts a wealthy crowd. In spite of the expansion and increased popularity, Zermatt has managed to retain a certain amount of its traditional charm and village feel.

The pedestrianisation of the town centre means people walk far more than they do in other resorts and the air is cleaner, yet there are still electric buses and taxis to shuttle people around if they don’t want to walk. Today, an incredible ski area with well maintained pistes and an efficient lift system combines with some of Europe's best mountain restaurants to make Zermatt one of the true must-experience resorts in the world. 

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