Thursday, 9 February 2012

Das Matterhorn II - Day 6 & 7

Gornergrat - Day 6

The second item on our itinerary for the day was a ride on the cogwheel railway to Gornergrat which sits at an altitude of 3089m above sea level. Negotiating a height difference of 1469m along the 9.4km journey, the Gornergrat Bahn was opened in 1898 and apart from being the first electrified cogwheel railway in the country, it also once held the distinction of being the highest railway in Europe before the Jungfrau Railway was completed.

Ticketing concourse of Gornergrat Bahn at Zermatt station. As it was in the late afternoon, the peak travel period had since passed. The Gornergrat Bahn is owned by BVZ Holding which also runs the Matterhorn-Gotthard Bahn (MGB), hence the Gornergrat Bahn is often promoted on MGB's train services that operate into Zermatt.
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Our trip was operated by 2 new Stadler low-floor articulated railcars which were coupled together. The windows at the high floor section located at the ends of the train can also be opened for ease of photography. The folding bench seats also double up as storage space for luggage and sports equipment when not in use.
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Zermatt town with the unmistakable form of Matterhorn in the background.
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Approximately 3,790m of the metre-gauge line is double tracked and the Gornergrat Bahn is also unique in employing three phase electrical power instead of the usual single phase on most of the other railways. This configuration necessitates two overhead power lines with the track forming the third conductor.
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Riffelboden (elevation 2348m) is a station which does not have any passenger boarding or alighting and mainly functions as a siding for trains waiting to proceed into the single track sector towards Riffelberg. The Gornergrat Bahn has a maximum gradient of 20% and employs the Abt rack system where the use of multiple bars with offset teeth ensures that the pinions on the locomotive driving wheels are constantly engaged with the rack.
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The final segment of the ride from Rotenboden to Gornergrat lie above the snow line and passengers were treated to a view of the snow covered Alpine tundra.
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The newer Stadler trains are also equipped with an audio system which provides a detailed commentary of the surrounding sights. Moreover, the train announcements are also made in five languages - the three official languages (German, French & Italian) as well as English and Japanese.


Stadler Bhe 4/6 railcar at Gornergrat station. The new Stadler railcars were introduced into service in 2006 and together with the old rolling stock, the Gornergrat Bahn has a carrying capacity of 2400 passengers per hour.
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At an elevation of 3089m above sea level, Gornergrat station is the highest open air railway station in Europe and was further extended to its current location in 1909. A three-star hotel (Hotel Gornergrat Kulm) and two co-located observatories are located next to the station.
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The milder weather at Gornergrat made the visit more pleasant and enjoyable than Klein Matterhorn. Upon exiting the station, the bulk of the passengers headed out to the snow covered slopes where much fun were had playing with the snow.
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Even though the softer snow at Gornergrat was admittedly quite slippery to walk on, one of us seemed to have particular difficulty with the lack of traction on his shoes and lost his footing a couple of times. Gornergrat is geographically classified as a ridge and visitors can enjoy playing with snow in summer while admiring a sweeping vista of four thousand metre mountain peaks.
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The weather soon deteriorated and despite our hopes for actual snow, it sleeted and we were forced to take cover in the comfort of the station building. After the weather had cleared up and discovered that one of us had proceeded down on the next available train, we decided to make good use of the 40 minute headway and headed up to the observation platform. The observation platform can be accessed by taking a lift up to the hotel.

An expansive view of the glaciers which the Gornergrat region is famous for could be had at the observation platform. The Gorner Glacier is the third longest glacier in the Alps with a length of 14 miles and encompasses an area of 68 square kilometres.
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The two observatories are part of the HRSJG (High Altitude Research Station Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat) and houses a 1.5m wide infrared telescope (Tirod) in the north tower and a 3m wide radio telescope (KOSMA) in the south tower from the late 1960s. However, they were decommissioned in 2005 and 2010 respectively.
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While walking down back to the station, we chanced upon a partially melted snowman and a sign further down the path which contained quotes from the Bible and a late German religious leader, Mother Basilea.
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We were delighted when an older Bhe 4/6 railcar turned up to operate the next trip back to Zermatt as it provided us a chance to ride on both types of rolling stock on the line. As it was near the end of operating hours, the train had been reduced to a single articulated railcar.
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Chrome letterings on the side of the Be 4/6 railcar which was manufactured by SLM Winterthur and first saw revenue service in 1993.
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Interior of the Bhe 4/6 railcar. As compared to the brand new Stadler railcars which we had rode on the uphill journey, the older SLM Winterthur railcars do not have any low floor sections and had a more retro feel to the interior. The two seats located next to the train operator's cabin feature a 'driver's view' but its availability is subject to the discretion of the driver.
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There was a light rain throughout the downhill journey which lowered the ambient temperature and we noted that there were no more uphill trains when we returned to Zermatt station and had to exit by a secondary exit.
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Being a town where vehicles fitted with combustion engines are outlawed, a sizeable number of cute electric taxis and trucks could be found laying over at the station plaza. Manufactured by Jumbolino or Stimbo, they can seat up to five passengers with their accompanying luggage. The bulk of them operate hotel shuttles for their guests between the station and the hotel.
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Swiss Fondue Dinner

As it was our second last day in Switzerland, we were keen to try the famous cheese fondue, something which the Amazing Race teams had in Zermatt as well. After checking out the menu and comparing the prices of a few restaurants, we settled for Restaurant Walliserhof along the main street.
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We ordered four different flavours to share – original, herbs, mushroom and tomato at the recommendation of the friendly waitress, and the cost was surprisingly reasonable as it was only slightly more expensive than the cost of a typical meal in this pricey country. The dish is eaten by dipping long-stemmed forks with bread into the melted cheese served in a pot over a spirit lamp. In addition to bread, we were also given boiled potatoes to go with the cheese. We found the savoury dish quite palatable but the novelty worn off as the fondue became increasingly greasy towards the end of the meal as the cheese thickened. However, it was most certainly a treat to enjoy the hot meal in the cool weather.
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Dusk had fallen when we concluded our dinner and proceeded to take a stroll through the rain soaked streets and enjoy the cool 16 degree Celsius evening. The Bahnhofplatz located in front of the Zermatt MGB station is the focal point of the alpine town as it serves as the transportation hub and is ringed by restaurants and souvenir shops.
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Intricate traditional Swiss wood carvings and adorable St Bernard plush toys compete for attention from the brightly lit window displays along Bahnhofstrasse. The bulk of the shops in Zermatt close early and shut their doors by 7pm in summer.
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A cluster of pubs and restaurants located further up the main street at Kirchplatz and Oberdorfstrasse allows weary travellers who wish to unwind and relax with friends after a day in the mountains.
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The luxurious five star Grand Hotel Zermatthof caters to the well heeled traveller and hosted the annual Zermatt Summit during our visit. As the Hotel Tannenhof is located behind the hotel, the Hotel Zermatthof served as a very convenient landmark for us to locate our hotel from the main street!
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Sunnegga Paradise - Day 7

Located in the heart of the town and just off the main street, the sports facilities in Zermatt are set against the stunning backdrop of the Alps.
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The weather-beaten log houses at Hinterdorf had truly withstood the test of time and amply demonstrated the practicality of the design in an alpine environment. The steep sloping roofs help to prevent snow accumulation and the use of logs also aid to keep the occupants warm in winter.
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An Electrobus Rizzi-Bus-Vetter Type 8 SH-L/B working on Green Line. Green Line provides a useful link between the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise Cable Car station, the Sunnegga Paradise funicular station and the Gornergrat Bahn/MGB station.
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The Sunnegga Express funicular station is located beside the River Vispa in the eastern part of Zermatt town. Being a rather cloudy morning, the temperature at Zermatt was at a comfortable 14 degrees Celsius while the information board (below right) showed that visitors would expect lower temperatures and stronger winds at the various mountain attractions due to the higher altitude.
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A 150m long tunnel leads passengers from the ticket counters to the boarding platform for the Sunnegga Express. In addition, a large electronic sign also informs passengers of the next scheduled departure time so that they could pace themselves appropriately when walking to the platform.
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Built in 1985, the Sunnegga Express is the first funicular in Switzerland to be built within a tunnel and is thus nicknamed as an “Alpine metro”. The 1.5km long funicular connects Zermatt town (1620m) with Sunnegga Paradise (2288m), and visitors can continue on to Blauherd (2517m) and Rothorn Paradise (3103m) by transferring to a cable car.
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With a headway of 15mins, we had ample time to obtain photos of the train and the station before the next departure time. The Sunnegga Express is metre gauge funicular and is run by a pair of trains which carry 200 passengers each in two Gangloff cabins that are coupled together. As with many other funicular systems, the descending train acts as a counterweight to the ascending train.

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It was also rather amusing to note that announcements were not quite synchronized with the actual door closing. In particular, by the time the announcement was made in English, the doors were literally closing – in fact just a few centimetres from being totally shut!
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Aside from being entirely underground, the Sunnegga Express also lived to its nickname as passengers were whisked through an elevation difference of 650m in only three minutes through the cold and gloomy tunnel. In comparison, the Beatenberg funicular is similar in length and height difference, but takes three times as long.

With its unique topography, Sunnegga receives a large amount of sunlight even when Zermatt is shrouded in clouds and is thus often referred to as Zermatt's 'Sunny Corner'. We were greeted by clear blue skies and bright sunlight when we stepped out of the station and wasted no time in heading up a grassy slope to take in the spectacular view of the valley.
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Mountains are known to be 'cloud magnets' due to the wind drafts on its flanks but we continued to be out of luck as the Matterhorn was stubbornly obscured by a thick layer of clouds and an unobstructed view of the famed peak remained just as elusive as the previous day.
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Leisee lake was touted to offer good reflections of the surrounding Alpine range on the Zermatt website but the picturesque view only lasted for a short while as the cool breeze produced ripples on the surface of the lake which marred the view.
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Due to its size, we had initially suspected that the lake was a man-made attraction but we eventually concluded from the surrounding geographical features that it is natural.
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The 80m long Leisee Shuttle is an inclined lift which ferries passengers between the Sunnegga Express station and the lake. However, the lift only operates in winter when the area serves as a learning ground for novice skiers and visitors who wish to visit the lake during the other seasons are required to navigate a rather steep gravel path from the station.
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Stopping to smell the first blooms of summer.....
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..or whispering sweet nothings to each other while being serenaded by the natural beauty of the Swiss Alps.
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We inadvertently discovered the existence of another tunnel which leads to the lower end of the Sunnegga Express station and were thus spared the potential ordeal of hiking back up the steep gravel path to board the funicular for the trip back down to Zermatt. Colourful wall murals line the tunnel leading to the Sunnegga Express platform and provided a much needed splash of colour to liven up the otherwise bland tunnel.
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We took the opportunity to make use of the favourable sunlight direction outside the Sunnegga Express station in Zermatt to obtain some photos of the electric vehicles under better lighting conditions. (Clockwise from top left)A Zermatt police vehicle; friendly locals on an open flat bed electric truck; a smaller variant of the Electrobus Rizzi-Bus-Vetter working the Red Line bus service; an electric hotel shuttle from the four star Hotel National & Spa towing a MGB luggage trailer.
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A Gornergrat Bahn SLM Winterthur Bhe 4/6 train travelling towards Gornergrat was photographed crossing over the overhead rail bridge at Matterstrasse.
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Horse carriages are available for hire at Bahnhofplatz to visitors who seek a more unique form of transportation in the alpine resort town of Zermatt. Moreover, top tier hotels such as the Grand Matterhorn Zermatt also offers their guests a ride to the hotel in a beautifully crafted horse carriage.
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We decided to settle for lunch at the Bahnhofbuffet located next to the MGB station at Bahnhofplatz. One section of the shopfront was also creatively modelled to resemble a MGB train carriage.
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As Zermatt is located close to the border with Italy, it is perhaps not surprising that the Bahnhofbuffet specialises in Italian cuisine although Zermatt and the canton of Valais is generally considered to be a German speaking region. After deliberating over the menu, we decided on items such as pizza prosciutto (pizza with ham and cheese) and rösti with ham and cheese (again). The pizza prosciutto was value for money with its generous size while the quality of the rösti dish had unfortunately struggled to compare favourably with the one that we had savoured at Klein Matterhorn.
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We decided to do some last minute shopping at the Co-op supermarket located near the bahnhof before returning to the hotel and could not resist a photo of the lavish selection of chocolates that is available at supermarkets in Switzerland.
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After collecting our luggage from the hotel, one of us who was a keen follower of the 'Amazing Race' reality TV series had decided that a ride in an electric taxi (which was featured in the show) was the perfect way to conclude the Zermatt portion of our trip and we requested a ride in the hotel's own electric Jumbolino taxi from the hotel proprietior.
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It was certainly a most interesting experience as the electric taxi jolted its way out to the main street and the virtual lack of suspension ensured that the occupants felt every bump and pothole on the road. The crammed seating arrangement and lack of headroom also ensured that its use was only confined to short journeys within the town itself!


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Das Matterhorn I - Day 6

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