Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Zermatt may be a hotspot of tough mountaineering with the Matterhorn but in the warm months, it also offers easy family hikes with incredible views and yummy Swiss lunch stops. Whether crossing meadows or passing cowsheds, these two trails are perfect picks to discover the Zermatt area. I took my girls as well as my parents on both of these, which shows that all generations can tackle these trails on family trips! If going down is an issue, just take it easy. That’s what I told my mom who has a bad knee. No need to rush with splendid views on the most iconic mountain of the Alps. Enjoy the hikes with your family!
1. RICOLA HERB GARDEN AND GORNER GORGES
SUMMARY: This hike features a gondola ride up to the start of the trail, a meandering mountain path to the quaint rural village of Blatten, a visit to the Ricola herb garden, a mountain health trail (if you need a forest workout) and a walk through the fascinating Gorner Gorges to finish.
DESCRIPTION: In Zermatt, we walked to the end of the village and hopped on the Gornergrat Bahn gondolas. My girls love gondolas, especially that sinking feeling when they pass tall towers and suddenly drop down the cable. The ride was short, sadly for them, as we got off at the first stop in Furi. Outside of the gondola station, we immediately turned right on a paved path signposted “9 Matterhorn Trail” that got us confused for a sec as it went both ways. We quickly worked that since we weren’t walking to the Matterhorn, the right way was down to Zermatt. After a few meters, a yellow sign on the left took us on less traveled routes toward Blatten and the Ricola-Krauterg. (that’s the German abbreviation for Ricola Herb Garden).
With some relief, we left the noisy gondola machinery behind for a well-maintained dirt path and lush green pastures. Our first sight was wooden chalets with red flowers hanging from balconies, green meadows for cows and pine trees in the background. How do Swiss mountains look so much like Heidi postcards?
Less than 20 minutes after we left the gondola, we reached the tiny mountain hamlet of Blatten, which can only be reached on foot. Imagine living there year-round!
The Ricola Herb Garden is a fun stop for kids and adults alike and a way to learn about the famous Ricola cough drops. Are they part of your winter closets? We certainly love them and my girls are eager suckers of the Ricola natural herb cough drops to soothe their sore throats. “Look maman, it says ‘no sugar.’ It’s good for us!”
Truth is, they do taste rather good and relieve minor sore throats in a pinch. It had never occurred to me to look at the plants listed in the ingredients. Cowslip, horehound, marshmallow, elder, peppermint, sage, thyme, yarrow, plantain, mallow, burnet, speedwell and Lady’s Mantle–all herbs that wouldn’t be out of place in a medieval monastery’s herb garden. They all thrive in the Swiss Alps, grown by mountain gardeners in large fields but for people like you and I, the Ricola Herb Garden in Blatten is one of three showcase Ricola gardens featuring all these medicinal herbs. Pretty cool, right?
What really got my girls’ attention was a metal mailbox. Looking at herbs is fine but it’s no reason to linger. The Ricola marketing people have found a way to make visitors stay and actually get to know the herbs – a quiz and contest!
We picked the brochure in French and my girls set out to ID the herbs in individual plots based on the central “labelled” garden. Very cool idea!
It was getting hot in the sun and we noticed a swing set with rings in the shade of the forest. What a fun surprise, it was part of a forest workout itinerary! It was such a nice temperature under the trees that we did the whole course and picked wild strawberries along the way. Exercising in nature has got to best idea ever.
Next stop on our list, lunch at the Blatten Bergrestaurant! My Swiss rosti with chanterelles were absolutely delicious. Swiss mountain food ain’t light but by Jove, it’s good. We topped lunch with artisan ice creams (rhubarb, anyone?) and left Blatten, following the sign for Gorner Gorges.
These incredibly narrow gorges can be explored via a wooden walkway. Known for their spectacular beauty, the stretch that’s family-friendly only took us 10 minutes to walk but my, was it impressive. I was particularly intrigued by the big round rock stuck between the walls of the gorge and now covered in plants. It must have slid off the gorge sides and gotten stuck because of its size. Nature truly is amazing.
The walk back to the southern end of Zermatt only took 20 minutes, leading straight to the commercial downtown area.
2. CHEZ VRONY IN FINDELN
SUMMARY: Chez Vrony is a fantastic mountain restaurant with unbeatable views on the Matterhorn from their sunny terrace. Extra cozy, To reach the restaurant, you can either hike (in the summer) or ski (in the winter, off the 6 ski run). I took my parents and my girls on the summer trails leading to Chez Vrony and never has mountain food tasted better. As a bonus for kids, this hike includes an underground funicular and a glass-walled elevator.
DESCRIPTION: We started with a real fun ride from downtown Zermatt, the Sunnegga Express Funnicular. This cablecar is completely underground from start to finish and goes up such a steep slope at high speed that my girls enjoyed it like a roller-coaster ride. When, after 10 minutes or so, we saw light at the end of the tunnel, we breathed a sigh of relief. Underground travel is all good but the light of day isn’t bad either.
As my mother has bad knees and hips, we took another shortcut to reach the trail–the glass elevator going down to Leisee at the end of (yet another) tunnel, straight out of the funicular. The elevator also led to Wolli Adventure Park, a mountain-themed playground for kids by the lake. If you have time at the end, it’s a great spot to let the kids run free.
Lucky us, we were able to enjoy many mountain wildflowers along the dirt path, as well as a gloriously sunny day. My eldest wasn’t interested in hiking with us as she had other projects in mind. She is really good at catch-and-release for grasshoppers and this mountainside didn’t disappoint in terms of the wee hopping insects. She spent the whole time on the hunt on the side of the path or directly on the slopes. She was unstoppable! Finally, we reached the charming hamlet of Findeln, its antique barns perched on stone slabs (as rodent protection) and world-class mountain restaurants. Hurray!
At a leisurely pace, it took us a little less than an hour to reach Chez Vrony in Finldeln from the Sunnegga train station. It was longer than what I had expected but my mother’s knees weren’t cooperating that well what with the inclines of some slopes. She was a bit grumpy at first but once we were seated, it was a royal experience. How could it not be with Matterhorn views and potted edelweiss flowerbeds in the restaurant? A waitress promptly came to take our table and when we ordered sparkling water, she brought their own free carbonated water in Chez Vrony-branded jugs. Very nice.
All the food was good, I have only compliments to offer. This was the appetizer mountain meats and cheese taster platter, but there were many more. I couldn’t resist a vegetarian entree, my mother had the rosti (and raved about it), my girls had tagliatelle. The home-made panforte (dried fruit cake) was so good that I asked if I could have the recipe. The chef wouldn’t give away his trade secrets but he offered me extra panforte to take home. That’s great service!
What I liked about the menu was that it catered for all tastes, meat and non-meat eaters. Also, the restaurant sourced their meats and veggies locally and organically which I think makes for great seasonal dishes. Now, two words of warning. First, if you have a small appetite, don’t order too much at once. The plates were huge! Second: make sure you reserve a table if you know you are going there. The restaurant s very popular.
Last but not least, the setting was cozy and the tables nicely spaced. We sat at outdoors picnic tables on sheepskins and for those of us who felt chilly (in the shade), they provided wool blankets.
If you come in the winter, chances are that you’ll sit inside of these all-wood dining rooms unless the weather is so nice that the terrace is a must. Whichever season you pick, you can’t go wrong. My mother hadn’t walked so far in years and despite the efforts it took her to reach the restaurant, she was genuinely happy about the experience.
After lunch, we went up the same way and said goodbye to the Adventure Park and its uber-cool lake raft which helps youngsters cross the lake by pulling on a cable.
If you go to Zermatt, make sure you try one of these hikes with your family. They make for fun and easy days out!