Zermatt: Mountain Vision

After centuries in the slow lane, Zermatt is embracing change - and fast. Minty Clinch reports

It took what felt like a millennium to bring the winds of change to ultra-conservative Zermatt, but it has been worth the wait. A decade ago, Matterhorn City was old and smug, living comfortably off the magic of its mountain; in the previous century, its celebrated ruling families had a stranglehold on the golden goose, cashing in without realising it was showing signs of mortality.

Ski school? There was just the one, with some of its instructors well into their seventies. Snow-making? Who needs it? Lifts? Let 'em walk, let 'em queue. Turning it around required serious money and, on the mountain at least, it has now been spent. In 2007, Zermatt has its first ever fully integrated lift system, half a dozen independent ski schools and snowmaking on all the main runs. Freedom of the slopes comes courtesy of a new eight-seat gondola linking Furi, at the base of the Klein Matterhorn, to Riffelberg, a mid-station on the 19th-century Gornegrat railway. In the morning, skiers can start on the futuristic chondola, a combo lift with chairs and cabins, from Sunnegga to Blauherd, cross to the Gornegrat area and connect via the Klein Matterhorn to Cervinia.

After an Italian lunch, they can make the whole journey in reverse. No schlepping across town, no overcrowded solar-powered bus, no iniquitously priced electric taxi. This is the real deal.

Stoked, the first independent to throw down the gauntlet to the Swiss Ski School, opened for business in 2000. Initially it offered snowboarding only, perhaps a less threatening approach to a monopoly that was deeply rooted in skiing. Whatever the rationale, it worked, and instructors in striking orange uniforms were soon to be seen ripping up the snowfields to widespread approval from their pupils. After a couple of years, Stoked added skiing to the menu, taking on a number of foreign instructors to appeal to Zermatt's polyglot clientele.

Once it was jolted out of its 30-year coma, the Swiss Ski School reacted quickly to turn the situation around. After working for Stoked in its infancy, Henry and Erica Meredith Hardy branched out on their own to establish Summit in 2005. In their third winter, they've upped their instructor count from 12 to 28, working extensively with the British tour operators, who can't believe their luck.

While the winds of change blow across the mountains, only one man has shown any inclination to take on the entrenched complacency in Zermatt itself. When August Julen, mountain guide and restaurateur, redeemed a promise to name his first-born son after the president of the Heinz Corporation, he couldn't know that he was releasing a rogue gene into his tight community. Heinz Julen, a leap-year child in 1964, hasn't taken to the canned food business, but he's certainly embraced the corporation's trademark variety with his involvement in painting, sculpture, design, hotels and entertainment projects.

Vernissage, a steel and glass bar, restaurant, cinema, club and art complex, still confronts its neighbours on Zermatt's rustic streets as aggressively as it did when it opened in 1992. For 2007, it has expanded into the shop next door, now a showcase for Julen's avant-garde furniture and objets d'art. Not all his schemes have been as successful, least of all Into the Hotel, a five-star €27m (£18.5m) billet that closed amid clouds of acrimony and litigation seven weeks after it opened on 29 February 2000. Now it may have an even more bizarre successor, a steel and glass hotel and restaurant pyramid rising to 4,000m out of the Klein Matterhorn. Although he has no architectural qualifications, and despite his track record, Julen won the competition to design it and he's tackling it with characteristic enthusiasm.

"It will be the highest place in Europe you can reach on a machine," he said. "It should honour the Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks, a spiritual place where people can dream they're in orbit. They will lie in bed without an artificial light in sight and gaze into the depths of the crevasses through huge windows. I was really amazed when the judges said yes to my vision. Now I have to make it all come true."

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