Back to the Past


by Marion Einbeck © 2005

Marion & Robert at the Cervin 1 pdf copy copy

Robert and Marion Einbeck in Zermatt at the Cervin

At first glance it seems to me that the photo with the two St. Bernards dates back several years. In my mind the feeling of that time tangibly returns and I realize that everything is much more recent than I thought.

It was late August, a few months ago; it was beautiful and warm, and joy filled the air. We were going to Zermatt for the first time and I was looking forward to discovering the village and the scenery of the Valais.

We were about to arrive when we began to run low on gas and therefore thought it wise to stop at the service station that stood among a clutter of warehouses of all kinds. There was an endless procession of cars that stopped and swarms of people getting out with their luggage. We were in Visp, the final point for those going to Zermatt. I was annoyed to find out from the young attendant filling our tank that, if we wanted to reach our destination, the only solution was to leave the car in a parking lot – his, to be precise – and for a stiff price at that. I suspected the worst when he insisted that only taxis, electric or utility cars, and horse-drawn carriages were allowed in town. With the secret expectation that the hotel where we’d be staying would provide me with different information, I phoned the Zermatterhof. Unfortunately for us, the information the concierge gave me was the same as that of the attendant. We would have to leave our car in Visp for the duration of our stay. Moving the bags from our vehicle to the taxi seemed an interminable process, and yet, some twenty minutes later we were on our way.

A few kilometers down a small winding road we passed a unobtrusive sign indicating that unless drivers had a special permit they were forbidden to go through. Our driver, who’d been silent until now, pointed the sign out to us and suddenly became much more eloquent, telling us in a volley of words that offenders were mercilessly pursued by the police all the way to their hotel. The fine imposed was so high that the offender would remember it bitterly for a long time to come. It seemed a bit exaggerated to us since the sign was very subtle and could not be seen, even in good faith. Absent-minded as were, such a mishap could easily have been ours and we were lucky to have escaped it. The thought lightened my heart and made me bless the attendant who had warned us in advance.

After the mazots – the traditional wooden buildings in the mountains of the Valais – the color of burned bread, that were deteriorating in the countryside, we were now seeing some tidy houses along the way. Our driver parked the car on a small square filled with carriages and stagecoaches and as soon as he turned the motor off and opened the door, we heard the conversations of the gathered valets. He called one of them, identified us, and asked him to approach.

When he heard our name the man turned his head, as he continued to rub the nose of his horse, who was attached to a small fine-looking stagecoach that displayed the turquoise-blue color of the Zermatterhof Hotel. He smiled and greeted us with charming courtesy. Alex had something of the muzhik, recruited into a strange kind of army, with his uniform and its rigid epaulettes lying flat on his shoulders. His ten-day old beard, Russian coachman’s style, his long wild hair, and his gentle eyes made him a touching figure. He belonged to a bygone era. He had the manners of a prince but his precise, lively gestures were well suited to the present circumstances. Alex deserved attention, as did his incredible carriage and, while he wrestled with our luggage hoisting it skillfully and carefully onto the outside rack of the vehicle, piled high as a mountain, he won our esteem with his strength and calm. Time seemed to have stopped. In my mind everything had changed and I was now curious about all that touched this magically strange world. I began by taking some deep breaths of the pure air that smelled of flowers, fruit, and manure when Alex offered me his arm to help me find the running board safely. We had the whole compartment of the comfortable, wooden and glass carriage to ourselves. As soon as the door was closed, Alex took off, perched outside on the seat up front. The reins in hand, his hair in the wind, and in his fine uniform, our coachman had great class and the horse began to trot the moment he was ordered to get started. What a merry escapade this was! The carriage quavered each time the wheels turned and our bodies rolled along with it. We let ourselves be carried off, our heart adorned with festive ribbons. The windows, like those of a house, were wide open to the sun as our little group made its way to the hotel through the maze of commercial alleyways. At the end of wider streets, in a gap made by a square, the horse trotted along despite his heavy load. Hearing his cheerful bells from the distance and his hooves hammering the ground, passersby turned around. They stopped as he came by, they made room for him as if to form an honor guard, throwing him benevolent, admiring looks. What a proud little horse he was!

That is how the Zermatterhof came into view, standing back in its park, in the splendor of that summer day. The enchantment of the expedition had made me forget Visp and as I opened the door I inhaled more of that unbelievably pure air. I noticed the enjoyable sounds reverberating through the village: a dog’s voice, children’s laughter, the bells of a church counting off the hours. The result was instant, spontaneous relaxation and I now realized what a pleasure it was to live as people did before, in a world without motorcars.

After going up the steps into the lobby and exchanging the first few words with Franz Imboden, the chief gentleman of the hotel’s conciergerie, a lovely young girl took us to our apartment. We marveled at the private rooms, spacious and sophisticated, done in pine. There was a living room with a fireplace, large armchairs, a bar, a beautiful table, immense TV screens, and an elegant bedroom that overlooked a terrace running the full length of the apartment. We were in a luxurious mountain chalet.

The establishment of the Biners was equally perfect for worldly bustle. On the large table – next to a basket of fruit, a bottle of water, and another of champagne – we found an invitation from the masters of the house asking us to come for drinks before dinner in the French salon. We arrived in what looked to us like an enormous reception hall at seven o’clock sharp. On a long table, decorated with beautiful flower arrangements, stood platters with appetizing treats. Christiane Biner looked up and the light of a chandelier fell on her blonde hair, revealing the expression of gentle inquiry on her fine face, illuminated by her beautiful light eyes. When she saw us, she began to smile. She spoke a few words to the man across from her, whereupon Rafael Biner turned around and came toward us with the know-how of a man who is an expert in the art of receiving. He had a gift, and it was his essentially subtle and discreet strength, that consisted of making everyone feel immediately at ease. You sensed it right away, in his calm voice and his reserved bearing, which produced an instant liking for him. Mr. Biner welcomed us warmly and with great kindness as well. “You must be Mr. And Mrs. Einbeck. I am so happy to meet you! It’s a good thing you arrived today so you can be at the little party we’re giving in honor of our friends.” Having said goodbye to a group of guests, his lovely wife joined us again, too, and seemed delighted to be with us. We had a pleasant, animated conversation and you could feel the deep connection between Christiane and Rafael Biner. The young woman was wearing an elegant beige pants suit. She was natural, open-minded, and refined. He was dressed in a dark suit and had the intellectual vivacity of a businessman. It was a moment spent in a sweet and pleasant atmosphere. The waiters moving through the room with their large tray offered delicious and hot miniature bites. As the hour went by, and under the effect of the champagne, the stilted attitude of the guests began to make way for a warm mutual interest, and groups were beginning to form. Voices grew louder and the laughter noisier. Thanks to the Biners and their beautiful hotel, everyone felt a quite at home now. A solid hour later, as the party was in high gear and the room was crowded, we slipped away as discreetly as we could. We wanted to get to bed early.

Our August 2006 vacation in Zermatt was the best one we had in a long time.


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