As you are strolling though the Hinter Dorf area you may well wonder whether the old village of Zermatt once looked like this. This is, in fact, the oldest surviving village centre and some of the buildings are over 300 years old. These fascinating Valais log buildings with their sun-beaten wooden walls made of larch wood were mainly put to agricultural use. There were barns where people would thresh the grain, and storehouses where they would dry their meat, slaughter their animals and store their treasures from the land away in chests. And there were buildings, known as Gädi, where the cattle were housed on the bottom floor and the hay stored on the top. These barns and storehouses mainly stood on stilts with round stone slabs on top so as to prevent rodents and insects from entering. The roofs on these typically Valais-style buildings were covered with shingles and flat stone slabs. There are around 50,000 of these agricultural buildings still in existence. The preservation of these buildings is of growing importance to the local communities, the Swiss Heritage Society and, fortunately, the owners themselves. The buildings symbolise the customs, traditions and farming culture at the highest altitudes in this Alpine region.
The situation in Zermatt
Outside the village, the municipality of Zermatt has recorded the existence of over 720 of these so-called "Hofstetten". An inventory of these buildings for the urban area has not yet been finalised. They also include ruins, some of which still house black-faced sheep and black-necked goats and are just as deserving of attention as are the more striking storehouses and barns.
With the decline of agriculture during the past century and particularly since the 1960s, these wooden witnesses to Alpine agriculture have increasingly lost their function. It was only in the 1970s and 80s that people started to realise that this cultural heritage was under threat. Maintenance of these buildings has been hindered by the inheritance laws in the Valais – many generations have now passed and as each building was used by several farmers there are, in some cases, hundreds of heirs involved. Preservation requires some considerable expense and family unity. Investment, cost effectiveness, aesthetics and meaningful use have to go hand in hand. It is gratifying that increasing numbers of owners are recognising just how much visitors to the area appreciate these barns and storehouses, either as accommodation or as a symbol of a mountain region that they perceive as being intact.
Larch wood the finest building material
The ancestors of the people of Zermatt were skilled builders. They appreciated the advantages of using larch wood. The larch is a kind of symbol of the Valais as some 29 percent of its trees are larches. The larch is the heaviest and hardest of the indigenous conifers. The wood is highly resinous, which repels vermin, and its core substances make it extremely durable. It has good strength and elasticity properties and is weather resistant. It atrophies at only a moderate pace and is noted for its excellent stability. Larch wood becomes dark brown or black when exposed to the sun. The wood heats when exposed to the sun and this produces energy. Hence, the people of Zermatt who live in black larch wood houses can turn off the heating in the daytime in winter, at least in those rooms that face the south side.
The "treasure chest" – gems from bygone days
Egon Gruber's „Schatzchischta“ (treasure chest) is located at the end of the Hinter Dorf, near the "Zum Steg" bridge. This unique barn with storehouse has been extended to four floors. Here Egon Gruber has assembled a variety of gems in the form of beautiful objects from bygone days stored in chests and in so doing has retained the essential purpose of these storehouses as places for the farmers to keep their treasures such as dried meat, grain and tools.
As in former times, the current owner has either recycled materials or converted them to a different use: a wooden beam from the roof has been used to make a stair railing. Handles have been made of vine wood. Local items have been left or added: a table of stone slabs from St. Niklaus or a Valaisan soapstone oven. The floor of the first floor comes from the Schweizerhof and is over 100 years old. The window by the entrance comes from an old house in Zermatt and dates back to 1780. There is even place for romance and luxury here – you can gaze at the stars through the window as you sit in the bath on the top floor.
Chalet Pico – from pigsty to the art of the essential
Marc Kronig's Chalet Pico is located in a side street between the Kirchplatz and the Hotel Monte Rosa. Its four floors are a blend of the highest levels of comfort and, at the same time, a reduction to the bare essentials. The basement houses a spa on 30m². The other floors reveal a fascination for the simple life on 19m² in a stylish minimalist design. In his use of materials needed to convert what was formerly a pigsty, Marc Kronig has strictly only used materials from the region. Hence the stones used for the dry-stone wall either came from the building itself or from Blauherd. Blauherd (blue earth) is the place where the Blauherd cable car station is now located. This shimmering bluish rock mass is best seen from the village. The Gädi facade with its 300-year-old larch wood has been retained. Marc Kronig inherited the building from his father Othmar Kronig and expresses his gratitude to him through the display of photos at the Chalet Pico of the first ascent of the Matterhorn North Face by a woman, Yvette Voucher of Geneva. Othmar Kronig had accompanied her up the Matterhorn in 1965 as a mountain guide. Marc Kronig has developed high-quality lithoprints that document this Alpine event in 1965 and add a depth of Zermatt family history to the luxury and originality of the Chalet Pico.
* Gädi (sing.) Gädini (plural) = stalls for small livestock (sheep, goats, pigs)