Puffins will be familiar with a truism of the lower orders ducking and diving through the mean streets of Zermatt with a dagger between their teeth looking for a cheap room while the officer class and their ladies alight at Riffelalp for the gentle stroll to the exclusive 5-star hotel of the same name.
Riffelalp Station sits on the Gornergrat line, a 9.34km long rack and pinion railway running from Zermatt, at an elevation of 1,605m, to Gornergrat, at an elevation of 3,089m. After leaving Zermatt the line crosses the river Matter Vispa and then the Matter Vispa’s Findelbach tributary via a spectacular viaduct after which Findelbach is the first stop. Two and a quarter kilometres later, and 431 meters higher up the mountainside, is the Riffelalp stop pictured below.
Sitting meters below the tree line makes it easy to locate via the miracle of Google Street View. The ridge in the background, the thinning of the trees and a sharp and steep curve in the tracks, identify the exact point. But not so much so the actual building which these days has a bigger roof overhanging the track-level platform. Next to the station sits the Riffelalp tramway, the highest and shortest in Europe. The tramway runs for 675m to the Riffelalp Grand Hotel, these days ominously referred to as a ‘resort’.
Originally a high meadow for summer grazing of the local Wallis black-nosed sheep, in 1856 hotelier Alexander Seiler (a Mr Zermatt in the same way old friend of this series Sepp Blatter is a Mr Football) purchased the plot. Realising the potential, between 1878 and 1884 Mr Seiler constructed a grand hotel for summer tourism which soon became a playground, or THE playground, for European high society. In 1890, the capacity of the grand hotel was increased to 200 beds and several years later to 280 following the acquisition of two annexe buildings.
An early famous visitor was Mark Twain, albeit on foot and when the railway was a pipe dream and the hotel still under construction. The American author has lent his name to the path along the mountainside, the Mark Twain Weg, which in the modern day includes the route of the tramway. He later described his experience, and his fellow mountain climbers, in a humorous book entitled Climbing the Riffelberg.
The Gornergrat railway arrived in 1898 with the tramway being inaugurated on 13th July of the following year.
When built the tramway was powered by an overhead two-phase contact line, no longer possible due to safety regulations. These days two battery-operated motor cars are used for passenger transportation and a trailer for goods and luggage. The line is 0.8m gauge with trams driven by an 80V 400Ah battery through two d.c. motors each delivering 10 kW which allows for a maximum speed of 10km/h. Rehostativc beaking is used meaning the battery can be charged during the downward run. A terminal loop sits at the top of the line as does a depot for two trams and a charging station.
The tram only runs in the summer. In wintertime, a porter and skidoo are utilised.
As for the rolling stock on the Gornergrat railway, fiddling with picture one reveals a Gornergratbahn Bhe 4/8. Numbered 3051-3054, these are articulated two-car units able to be used in pairs. In the background is the distinctive silver-lined windscreen of an unidentified older unit passing in the station loop.
These days the service can take an impressive 2,500 people per hour per hour from Zermatt to the Gornergrat mountain summit.
As for the grand hotel herself, the blurb does gush;
Feel relaxed in the beneficial mountain climate in the middle of fragrant pine and larch forests and with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn. Since the 19th century, guests have considered the Riffelalp as an exclusive place for peace and relaxation and they appreciate the diversity between sports activities, pleasant relaxation and the luxurious delights that the Riffelalp Resort at 2,222m offers. “A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony”, said Mount Everest pioneer George Mallory. The British mountaineer enjoyed the high alpine freshness in the summer and was a five-star guest at Riffelalp high above Zermatt.
After reading the spiel, £400 a night for bed and breakfast in a room without a view sounds like an absolute bargain, although prices can creep up to over £2,000 a night.
Besides Mark Taiwn, others famous and infamous have passed by. Including notorious arms dealer Richard Onslow, his obedient night manager Johnathan Pine and their alter egos Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. For some of the exteriors for the TV adaptation of The Night Manager were filmed here under the guise of John Le Carre’s fictional Hotel Meisters.
As for the chapel nearby, I’m grateful to an anonymous contributor to the July 16th 1887 edition of The Tablet. ‘An English Catholic’ reminded the editor and his readers of fellow Catholic countrymen who have visited Riffel in the past being aware of the two-hour descent and three-hour climb from the grand hotel to Zermatt for Sunday Mass. Eagle-eyed Puffins will realise the correspondence to have taken place before the building of the railway and tramway.
“A weary pilgrimage no longer necessary at the Riffel-Alp as not a hundred yards from the hotel there now sits a church capable of seating 120 persons. It had been built by M.Seiler not for the convenience of pleasure seekers, but for the peasantry scattered about the neighbouring mountains and those in the employ of the somewhat remote grande hotel.”
In 1886 a room had been built and could be used when a priest happened to visit the location. The success of this arrangement led M. Seiler and his wife Catherin to commission the little chapel which was consecrated on 3rd July 1887.
Mr English Catholic continued, “It is all that a mountain church should be; very simple, but in excellent taste, with no tawdry decoration, nor meretricious ornaments.”
The letter writer went on to explain the Bishop of Sion had been unable to attend due to his infirmities and advanced age. Before Puffins of a certain inclination (which to my chagrin can include myself) become over-excited, that’s Sion, not Zion. Sion being an ecclesiastical centre of 34,000 stout souls situated about 20 miles in a straight line across the Alps from Zermatt.
The Curé of Zermatt officiated in the absence of the bishop. The Tablet’s correspondent described the event with enthusiasm before exploding into scripture.
“The scene was one not easily forgotten. The assembled peasants, the unfeigned reverence of all, as we stood outside the church during the blessing bell, encircling the everlasting hills, the meadows gay with flowers, the cloudless sky above us.”
“The heavens declaring the glory of God, and the firmament showing his handy work” while the hearts of all were evidently lifted up to thoughts of the ‘Better country’ and of Him who showed us the way thither: the way, the truth, the life.”
The church having been thus consecrated, it was hoped three services might be held each week in the season. The expectation being of English priests partaking of a busman’s holiday for the benefit of rich and poor, native and stranger.
Named the Heart of Jesus Chapel, it is still in private hands and not always accessible to the public but is available for weddings. The chapel’s altar, pointed arched windows and choir arch are Neo-Gothic features. The title figure of the altar is of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and is accompanied by statues of Our Lady and St Rita. Two coloured glass windows depicting Our Lady and St Joseph illuminate a retracted choir. Apart from the choir, windows are of bright unpainted glass. Walls are embellished with ornaments and commemorative plaques remembering various members of the Seiler family.
Almost a century later, disaster struck. On Thursday 16th February 1961, the English newspapers reported,
Swiss Hotel fire. The RiffleAlp Hotel was damaged by fire early this morning. The hotel situated on the famed Gornergrat ski fields above Zermatt, Switzerland, was empty as it was undergoing extensive renovations.
Not reopened until 1988, the Riffelalp has expanded into one of those dreadful things called a ‘resort’, complete with extensions crammed with cramped and expensive rooms, a children’s playground and tennis courts.
Whilst playing cribbage for matchsticks with a retired Church of Scotland minister in the breakfast room (overlooking a row of wheelie bins) of my inferior digs at the concrete end of Zermatt, one almost pities senior management. Forced, one suspects, halfway up the Matterhorn, to mix with scar-faced Russian psychopaths and their molls.
One such extension can be seen in the photo above as the walk continues beyond the grand hotel and further along the Mark Twain Weg – all the way to the top at Gornergrat. Upon arrival, the classic view of the Matterhorn is captured. The ski slope and a hint of blocky ski slope signage to the right of the photo suggest this is close to the top of Gornergrat, perhaps hereabouts but on the far side of the railway line.
On the way back down, a wooden lodge is encountered. Amongst many other similar chalets about the hillside, I can’t find this on the satellite mapping, although I can translate an apposite aphorism visible on its walls.
After acknowledging a Puffin punching reassuringly above his weight, one’s eye is drawn to the signage. The lower, in faded black on orange, is the standing Teutonic instruction insisting all is verboten and we must keep out. But the verse below the timbered Alpine eave to the left reminds us all of another undeniable truism.
Glück u ungluck
Trag in ruh
Und auch di
Captured via your humble author’s rusty German to a fashionable un-rhyming:
Happiness and misfortune
Take it in your stride
All of it will pass
And so will you
© Always Worth Saying 2023