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City & Country: Alpine real estate gem

Switzerland is synonymous with the dazzling beauty of the Alps, spectacular ski spots and a host of other tourist destinations. But there’s also a hidden gem that’s a big hit with visitors too. Called Zermatt, the quaint village is tucked away at the foot of the Matterhorn, dubbed the most photographed mountain in the world.

What does a Swiss tourist hotspot have to do with real estate? Well, Zermatt, a municipality in the German-speaking section of the canon of Valais in the west of Switzerland, is no ordinary tourist paradise.

While the real estate world is watching the ongoing construction of Zira Zero Island, a one million sq m carbon neutral resort and residential development on Zira Island located in the Caspian Sea, the alpine village of Zermatt is already, well, vehicle-carbon free.
Every year, a week before Christmas, some 32,000 people descend on this village measuring a mere 2.5km by 1km
No conventional vehicles ply the streets of Zermatt, which lies at an altitude of 1,620m. Surrounded by 38 peaks rising more than 4,000m, mountain enthusiasts and nature lovers get to enjoy the recuperative qualities of this unique enclave all  year round. Private traffic is only permitted up to the neighbouring village of Tasch, 5km away.

It is said that there are as many as 4,000 car parks, both open air and in multi-storey buildings in Tasch. Taxis are on hand to ferry visitors but only to the edge of Zermatt.

Another way to get to and from Zermatt is by train. While  regular trains provide a link to international airports in Geneva, Zurich, Bern and others, the shuttle trains of the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway run between Tasch and Zermatt every 20 minutes. These trains are specially designed to cater for luggage-laden push trolleys as well as oversized baggage like skis and golf sets. There’s also a heliport to cater mainly for emergencies.

It was as far back as 1947 that the village decided to allow only electric cars without combustion engines to operate within its boundaries. That was long before the global green debate took off.

To facilitate public travel within Zermatt, there are electric buses, taxis and horse carriages although walking and cycling remain the preferred mode of transport. This is not surprising given its modest size — the village measures only about 2.5km by 1km. At last count, there were about 500 electric vehicles and  about a dozen electric buses.

Electric vehicles, bicycles and horse carts ply the streetsZermatt boasts significant wildlife habitats. Twelve headwaters with 86 springs are found here. The water is 95% pure spring water and meets the standards of Swiss food law, according to Zermatt Tourism.

In Zermatt, celebrities walk incognito, says the chatty Amadè Perrig, who has just retired as president of Zermatt Tourism after holding the post for 25 years. Not only has Perrig, 63, successfully raised the profile of Zermatt as a key tourist destination but he was also instrumental in stopping the development of 150 chalets in Tasch. It took him 17 long years to convince the investor to change his mind. Five years ago, the development tract was turned into a 9-hole golf course. Work is in progress on the second nine.

“The chalet project would have destroyed too much land, destroyed the environment,” says Perrig, who owns a  bungalow in one of Zermatt’s prime locations.

Real estate ownership in Zermatt is unique. Land is scarce and has to be passed on to the next generation and not sold to “outsiders”. Increasing demand has pushed property values significantly over the years. Perrig estimates that one sq m of a vacant lot in a prime area is worth 4,000 swiss francs (RM13,193) or so. This works out to 34.93 swiss francs psf (1 swiss franc — RM3.30).Quaint shops with distinct architecture are another feature of Zermatt

That’s why many foreign workers employed in Zermatt, who hail mostly from Portugal and Spain, choose to shuttle daily from Tasch where accommodation is about just half the cost, explains Marc Scheurer, Zermatt Tourism marketing director.

Alluring landscape
Zermatt’s landscape is dramatic — the hardscape is captivating and nostalgic  and the softscape, subtle but idyllic. Homes, hotels, apartments, restaurants and bars are clustered mainly in the valley, but there are buildings that caress the steep slopes of the Alps. One can’t help  but wonder how these quaint structures were erected and stay perched on the mostly snow-draped slopes despite the continuous movement of glaciers in their midst.

The architecture is understated; wood and stone combine to exude a warm home ambience.

Do not be fooled by the exterior of these structures. From the outside, the restaurants and hotels I visited initially gave the impression of being cramped. But to my pleasant surprise, the buildings are long, spacious and cleverly demarcated for specific use, including nooks and corners designed for privacy.

Take Hotel Julen (www.julen.com). From the exterior, this is a nondescript building but a guided tour of its interior reveals two cosy and spacious dining areas complete with an indoor swimming pool and a spa.

The majestic MatterhornLike all properties in Zermatt, those with a view of the Matterhorn in whole or in part, carry a premium. There is nothing garish or pretentious about the architecture and design of Zermatt buildings. Instead, they display brilliant spatial planning that optimises land use.

Beginnings
While its permanent population totals 5,800, the peak holiday season — one week before Christmas — will see the headcount rising to 32,000 as tourists flock in.

While most visitors hail from Europe, Zermatt is also a big hit with the Japanese, which explains the presence of Japanese restaurants here.

Tourists descend on Zermatt throughout the year to patronise its 400km of ski slopes in addition to the numerous hiking, cycling and mountain climbing trails. So, at any one time, do not be surprised to find 8,000 to 9,000 people in the village. Did I mention that there are 120 hotels with 7,000 rooms in Zermatt? Apart from that, apartments have become increasingly popular.

Room rates can vary substantially. Take the family-owned Hotel Perren where I stayed — a night’s stay with breakfast and dinner starts from less than 100 swiss francs during the low summer period to almost 400 swiss francs for a room with a view of the Matterhorn.

The nondescript facade of this hotel camouflages a host of wellness facilitiesFor Zermatt, the Matterhorn is all-important. It is in the running to be named one of the “new seven world wonders of nature”.  The Matterhorn is among 261 candidates from 222 countries hoping to make the cut. The winners will be announced in 2011 by a panel of judges led by Frederico Mayor Zaragoza, former director-general of Unesco.
Until the mid-19th century, the village was predominantly an agricultural community and its German name “Zur Matter”, according to Wikipedia, means “in the meadow”.

Zermatt was “discovered” in the mid-1800s. In 1865, a group of British mountaineers led by Edward Whymper managed to beat the Italians in their conquest of the Matterhorn. Sadly, however, four of the seven-man team lost their lives during the descent.

Zermatt is tourism-driven and despite its modest size, it boasts some 200 eateries, big and small. Of this, about a fifth dot the ski slopes and hiking trails.

Photographs of Zermatt taken during  different times of the year show the landscape transforming quite amazingly in tune with the seasons. Summer ushers in an abundance of wild and colourful blooms as alpine animals such as marmots, chamois, ibex and deer frolick against a backdrop of snow-capped alps. According to Zermatt Tourism, there are more than 1,000 alpine flowers, including several protected species such as the Edelweiss.

Autumn brings a new face that shimmers in gold while winter is simply magical. Spring heralds a delightful burst of hues.
Zermatt, indeed, is a world of its own. A rare gem of a real estate.




This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 791, Feb 1-7, 2010.

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