February 5, 2013 by Jools Stone
Strange things happen atop mountains… and on the way up them. I was packed into the charming green and cream vintage narrowgauge train, with at least a thousand Asian tourists, which winds halfway up Switzerland’s Jungfrau Railway when I got chatting to the elderly couple sitting next to me. They happened to hail from Linlithgow too, a mere 25 minutes by train from my home.
They told me that they’re making this pilgrimage for the third time – 50 years to the day after they spent their honyemoon in the region. The husband is clutching a wallet of their honeymoon snaps, now tinged a purpely, sepia tone – no Instagram required.
Their snaps of the snowy peaks, clockwork houses, log piles and Alpen-advert lush, green hills are little altered from the views we can see out of the windows today. Only the cars and the hats on the men on the street below the hotel belie the era. He tells me that he actually proposed at the top too – ‘That mountain air does some funny things to you I suppose!’, he chuckled.
We disembark for the last of our ‘picture window’ stops, and avoid the fevered rush of excitable Indian tourists, all jostling for position to get the best possible spot with their cameras, and take the final train to the top.
The journey to the Jungfrau is taken via three different trains. The journey starts at Interlaken with a regular Berner Oberland Bahn service. You then change at Lauterbrunnen, where you may be greeted by a pack of thirsty-looking St Bernard dogs, for the narrow gauge railway. This takes you as far as Kleine Scheidegg, where you get the final, shiny, square, red number on a rack railway specially engineered for the steepest part of the climb, which whisks you all the way up to Europe’s highest train station: Jungfraujoch.
Finally we make it to the summit – the easy way of course! Up here glacier walkers several miles below look like burnt out matches on one giant iced birthday cake and pure, blinding whiteness abounds.
The effects of the altitude – not to mention the glasses of Merlot we had over lunch – begin to noticeably kick in, that old dizziness in the noggin whips our brains around and we begin to feel the mighty mountain’s full, melon twisting effects. As we look across at the sheer, indomitable, jaggy face of the Eiger it’s impossible not be awed by both it and the many men who traversed it over the past century.
There’s a fitting memorial to them inside the new Visitor Centre (opened to celebrate the Jungfrau Bahn’s centenary in 2012) including the scores who gave their lives, either in building the tunnel or attempting to master the mountain. Monochrome cut outs of men and women wielding pick axes and dynamite sticks peer out at us eerily with very lifelike glazed expressions, like we’re on some vintage Alpine ghost train. (We’re also taken inside a little secret igloo housing barrels of the mountain’s very own resident malt whisky.)
It’s hard to imagine someone more Swiss than our guide Deiter. A retired merchant banker, his parents were both watchmakers. He proudly sports a chunky Rolex on his left wrist. Deiter has clearly led a rich and interesting life, regaling us with tales of meeting the Beatles and living the highlife in London as a young stockbroker.
He even looks definitively Swiss, in a racy pair of circular, bright red specs which brighten up his silver bearded face and his equally bright red Jangfrau jerkin clings to a surprisingly athletic torso for a man of his age, finely tuned by many years of mountain hiking, no doubt. He’s an excellent guide, brimming with useful info and an easy going manner, even if he does make the odd slightly inappropriate joke, inviting for the girls in our group to join him in his hot tub later…
So mountains can evoke some strange behaviour, and so it did in me. I found myself contemplating a zipline for the first time in my life. Now, I am not generally much good with heights nor extreme exhilaration, so to say this was an ‘out of character’ thing to do would be like saying that the Eiger is a *bit* of a trek…
But soon enough I found myself clambering up the metal steps and being strapped into the harness. ‘You ready?’, asked the strapping ponytailed strapper man. He didn’t hang about for my answer and duly swung me off the platform like a sack of oats.
It was all over, quick as a flash, but not without a sacrifice – my trusty Moon Lite BBQ trucker cap was the only casualty. It flipped off as I whizzed down, forever lost to the snowy drifts. So at least I can say I left a small part of me on that mountain…
The hardest part of it was actually the long walk back in the snow to the main path. The combination of residual adrenanlin, altitude, and negotiating several feet of snow in just a pair of trainers definitely put my tarred and feathered lungs to the test!
The journey on the way back down was always bound to be a touch anticlimactic, but since we took a different route via Grindelwald it was still fairly special. We passed the furiously tumbling ‘black water river’ (actually more like khaki brown) to the comforting sound of cowbells tinkling and clattering and gormless goats chewing around the verges – just to ram home the point that we’re still very much in Switzerland. Packed off at Interlaken we said a fond farewell to Deiter and the Jungfrau in a state of pure Swiss bliss.
Getting there and Around
Switzerland may not be the cheapest country to explore by train, but it is worth it! The Jungfraubahn is a private railway, which means that it sets its own prices and you also cannot use an InterRail pass to bag free ride on it, though various discounts do apply.
If you plan to see a bit of the country, your best bet is probably the Swiss Pass, which you can also use on the excellent network of trains, boats and buses.
To get the best deal on the Jungfraubahn, set your alarm and try to get the first train of the day, which will set you back a mere 140 CHF return. And if you just can’t get enough of those Alpine vistas you might want to think about the Jungfrau Railways Pass, which bags you unlimited travel on the JBR for 6 consecutive days.
I took this trip as a guest of the Swiss Tourist Board. All opinions are my own (but you can borrow them if you ask me nicely).