Zermatt, at the foot of world-famous Matterhorn, looks back on a long and turbulent history. Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, sitting at its centre, is under the ownership of Zermatt’s burghers and has shaped the self-image and identity of the entire town which, today, accommodates xxx guests, tourists, and alpinists every year.
Picture a visitor strolling up the lively main road of Zermatt, past sophisticated boutiques and elegant hotels and restaurants. Maybe he pauses just before reaching the church, captured by a lingering sense of times gone by. To the left of the Monte Rosa hotel whose house front directly borders the street, a lush park stretches in pleasant noblesse, contrasting the hustle and bustle of the street and surrounding – Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. To its owners, the burghers of Zermatt, the hotel means almost more than their own individual property.
The development of the once impoverished mountain village to a globally renowned mountain resort was impressive. If we could travel back in time to the year of 1843, we would come upon the following version of Zermatt: The most remote village in a rugged valley, the place can only be reached on foot, or maybe on the back of a mule. Arriving finally, tired and dusted, visitors can stay at either one of only two simple hostels that, in all, offer 17 beds. Only few of the local residents have ever left the village, all of them live off the sparse crops of their farms. They have to cut to size each beam, each wooden plank manually. All construction materials – except for sand and stones – have to be hauled up to 2566m above sea level with the help of mules.
The first ascent of Matterhorn some 150 years ago catapulted, as is well-known, Zermatt into modern times and initiated a development that turned a sleepy mountain village, first slowly, then swiftly, into one of the world’s best known tourist destinations. With the conquest of Matterhorn and with Edward Whymper’s and Alexander Seiler’s clever commercialization of their achievement, Zermatt became word-famous and suddenly was considered a top alpinist metropolis, on a level with Chamonix and Saas Fee. Suddenly, it was the bon ton to travel to the Matterhorn village. The number of visitors soared to new heights, and soon, the demand for accommodation could no longer be satisfied.
The construction of the first Grand Hotels were pioneering projects and are still testimony to the foresight of the first touristic innovations. One them was Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, erected by the burghers of Zermatt 140 years ago. The amount of work they contributed would be considered paid share capital which would yearn profit, once the hotel was running profitably. Statutes regulated the dividends each burgher family would receive by way of remuneration.
In the years between 1876 and 1879, the ambitious project designed by Siders architect Markus Burgener, was built. The cost for its construction and furnishings climbed to the horrific sum of 200 000 Swiss francs. Erecting a building of this size was difficult and almost comparable to building a cathedral in a time, when there was no railway connection to Zermatt. Initially called Hotel Zermatt, the new hotel offered various large rooms, and 94 guest rooms (150 beds); It was the largest and most stately guesthouse of the village.
Zermatt villagers now had a prestigious building, the grandest hotel of the village. But they could not – or did not dare to – manage it themselves. Therefore, they leased Zermatterhof to the Seiler family, a hotelier dynasty. It seems to be irony of fate that Alexander Seiler, who had vehemently opposed the foundation of the hotel, ended up benefitting considerably from it. In 1920, the burghers decided, however, to run the hotel themselves.
Grand Hotel Zermatterhof still emanates the elegance of its early years. Director Rafael Biner honours its traditions and at the same time leads the venerable hotel into the future with great foresight. Today’s luxury hotel business can only prevail by offering culinary experiences of the highest level. As many as five Michelin stars shine on the Zermatt restaurant sky, and Heinz Rufibach, Cuisinier as Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, is one of the laureates. For three years, Rufibach and his Prato Borni team have introduced their “Alpine Gourmet“ concept to shine a light on Valais products. The five-star Zermatterhof cuisine holds 15 Gault&Millau points. At Alpine Gourmet Prato Borni, the Zermatterhof fine dining restaurant, Heinz Rufibach and his team take their guests on a journey to new culinary shores. Despite a large number of new hotels in town, Grand Hotel Zermatterhof remains the “grande dame“ – and the pride of the burghers of Zermatt.
Source: „Wenn Hotels erzählen, Episoden und Streiflichter aus der Geschichte der Zermatter Burgerhotels“. Author: Ernesto Perren