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Majestic, magnetic Matterhorn

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ZERMATT, Switzerland — Gasps and sighs echo through the mountain air as a cloud clears to reveal the full sunset glory of Switzerland's most celebrated national symbol: the Matterhorn.

The sheer majesty of the mountain — described back in the mid-19th century as "THE peak people wish to see" — has lured millions of admirers and turned this rugged, remote village into a magnetic tourist destination.

"It's absolutely beautiful," enthuses Carey Jones, a graphic designer visiting from New York. "Stunning. Gorgeous."

But despite the hordes of tourists thronging its narrow streets, Zermatt remains refreshingly free of the noise and bustle of other resorts. There are no cars, buses or trucks belching fumes because of a long-standing ban on all traffic, apart from the electrically powered vehicles that ferry around guests and supply the hotels.

"There are two main things Japanese tourists like about Zermatt," says Saito Kazuhide, a hiking guide, smiling through his high-altitude sunburn. "There are no cars, and there's the Matterhorn.

The mountain adorns the estimated one ton of postcards mailed from Zermatt every year and is said to be one of the most photographed peaks in the world.

It has enjoyed international celebrity status ever since Englishman Edward Whymper first conquered the 4,478-meter (14,692-foot) peak in 1865. His historic achievement was marred by tragedy as four of his seven-man team plunged to their deaths when a rope broke during the descent.

Poignantly, their graves rest in Zermatt's cemetery, alongside dozens of other climbers subsequently killed.

Each year, there are some 90-120 accidents in the Alps around Zermatt. Many of the casualties are victims of their own folly rather than nature's foibles — such as the British man who wanted his 8-year-old son to become the first child to conquer the mountain in 1979. Their bodies were never recovered.

"People now have more money than in the past and are better equipped, but many just don't have experience at high altitudes," points out Kurt Lauber, who runs the mountain cabin where people stay during the climb.

"They overestimate themselves and underestimate the challenge," says Lauber, now in his sixth year on the Matterhorn.

In the peak July 20-Aug. 20 season, Lauber says about 140 people per day ascend the Matterhorn, which has about 30 different routes.

The rules are straightforward but frequently ignored: Go with a guide. Begin the climb before dawn and be back by early afternoon before the sun makes snow cover too treacherous. Only those in prime physical condition should attempt the climb after at least 10 days acclimatizing in the area.

The experience doesn't come cheap. It costs 730 Swiss francs ($456) for the guide and 144 francs ($90) for the overnight stay in the cabin. In return comes a diploma of achievement and a lifetime of memories.

Even though the Matterhorn grabs the attention, there are 35 other peaks of more than 4,000 meters (13,200 feet) in the area, making Zermatt a true mecca for mountaineers.

The local Alpine Center, with its 60 registered guides, offers a wide array of climbing and trekking tours, ranging from easy walks to marvel at the local flora to tough hikes along glaciers and ice craters.

For those who fancy a touch of skiing in the sun, the Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn) is Europe's biggest summer site, with skiing at 2,890-3,890 meters (9,545-12,840 feet) and six year-round lifts and many facilities for snowboarders.

The sedentary can take the underground express train to get to sunny Sunnegga high above Zermatt. This connects to a cable car up to the Rothorn mountain at 3,100 meters (10,230 feet), which offers the best views of the Matterhorn.

Alternatively, there is a 45-minute train ride up to the Gornergrat, which has stunning vistas of some 30 of Switzerland's highest summits.

The Air Zermatt company offers exhilarating helicopter rides around the Matterhorn for 195 francs per person ($122) for a minimum of four people.

Afraid the kids might get vertigo? Don't worry, there's a children's park with a variety of programs for children, as well as child-care facilities.

Members of the English nobility have enjoyed a long love affair with Zermatt, dating back to Whymper's famed ascent. As testimony, there is an English church and quaintly named "English quarter."

Zermatt is not without its problems. It is struggling to repay debts of some 100 million francs ($63 million) due to overambitious projects and bad investments. The town fired a newly appointed tourism director in January because of irreconcilable differences over how the resort should be run.

But visitors meandering along the main street or browsing in the stores among the omnipresent knives and cuckoo clocks are blissfully unaware of the financial and political headaches.

Small the village of 5,600 may be, but it boasts 13,000 beds in hotels and apartments alongside more than 100 bars, discotheques and restaurants.

Budget travelers can lodge in the local youth hostel for 46 francs ($28) in high season. At the other end of the scale is the stately Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, where a double room costs between 370 and 800 francs ($231-$500) a night.

Into-the-Hotel offers high-tech accommodations at high prices. Designed by a well-known local architect, it opened briefly at the end of the winter season only to close for work to be completed. It's a glass and brass temple-like construction that contrasts starkly with Zermatt's quaint wooden buildings and classically elegant hotels.

Many hotels offer all-inclusive summer packages combining accommodations and food with features such as sporting or wellness activities, hiking and painting, botanic weeks — even a romantic weekend with a helicopter flight.

Zermatt also offers the ultimate in romantic experiences — marriage.

Up to three weddings can be scheduled each morning in the summer in a choice of two mountain chapels. The basic price of 2,500 francs includes transfer by electric car from the hotel to railway station, mountain train ride, wedding dress and silk flowers with optional extras, such as transfer by horse-drawn carriage, wedding banquet and Japanese hostess assistance.