Experiencing the 'Top of Europe'

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on July 27, 2009

Part of our Swiss itinerary was Jungfraujoch: "Definitely worth visiting,"according to my sister. Not because we haven’t seen mountains this high; the Jungfrau is, after all, small fry when compared with most of the Himalayan peaks back home. But back home, it’s impossible to go that high up a mountain on a day trip from a major city.

Which brings me to our day trip from Lausanne to Jungfrau. This, as we realised during the course of a very long day that we spent mostly travelling, isn’t a good idea. It’s comfortable enough, and the views are out of this world, but it’s too much to pack into one day.

We began at about 8 AM by taking the Metro to Lausanne Ouchy, from where we changed to an intercity train for Montreux. Montreux, because our relatives had recommended the GoldenPass Panoramic, a special train that does the Montreux-Interlaken circuit, following an especially scenic route along the shores of Lac Leman and then into the Alps. At Montreux we made our way to the GoldenPass Panoramic (you can’t miss it: the carriages are white and gold, with the name emblazoned along the sides) and boarded it. Swiss passes are valid here too, but passengers are required to reserve seats in advance—at CHF10 per person.

The GoldenPass Panoramic has huge windows, and glass panels set into the ceiling, so there’s plenty of scope to admire the scenery, which is truly panoramic. On the three-hour run from Montreux to Interlaken, we passed neat vineyards sloping down to Lac Leman; cows, each with a bell dangling from its neck, grazing placidly in meadows yellow with buttercups and dandelions; pretty wood-fronted chalets with window boxes full of red and pink geraniums; coniferous forests and copses—and the snow-capped Alps rising in the background. The closer we got to Interlaken, the prettier it got, with waterfalls cascading down mountainsides, the woods getting denser and more extensive, and the meadows becoming even more full of wildflowers—particularly daisies—than we’d ever seen.

Having left Montreux at about 10 AM, the GoldenPass Panoramic pulled into Interlaken Ost at 1 PM (remember, don’t get off at the Interlaken station; you need to disembark at Interlaken Ost to catch the train to Jungfrau). From Interlaken Ost, trains leave every hour for Kleine Scheidegg, the next halt on the way to Jungfrau. The next train, we discovered, would leave in 3 minutes’ time, which would’ve been great if we hadn’t been feeling so hungry. We therefore decided to go have lunch—at the Co-op Department Store opposite the train station—and then catch the 2 PM train. Tip #1: Carry your own food; sandwiches, fruit or pastries that you can consume while you’re travelling.

There are two routes to Kleine Scheidegg: one via Grindelwald, the other via Lauterbrunnen. Tarun asked one of the engine drivers (all speak pretty fluent English on this touristy stretch) which was the shorter route, and was told that both were about the same distance. We opted for the Grindelwald route, and soon found the train riding steadily up a thickly wooded mountainside. This was where I started getting a wee bit frustrated, because I’d see the most tantalising banks of alpine flowers—brilliant stretches of blue, purple and white—and would know that we couldn’t spare the time to get off, take some photographs, and then get on to the next train. Tip #2: Stay overnight at Interlaken, so you can do the trip up to Jungfrau in easy stages.

At Grindelwald, we got just enough time to hop off our train and on to the next, which would take us up to Kleine Scheidegg. Grindelwald is at an altitude of 1,034 mt while Kleine Scheidegg’s nearly double that, at 2,061 mt, so the rise is steep and spectacular: within a few minutes, we’d left the tree line behind us, and the only signs of vegetation were scrubby grass and occasional patches of wildflowers that looked like crocuses. Soon banks of dirty snow started appearing, and then we were at windy, bleak Kleine Scheidegg, to switch to the Jungfraubahn, a small two-carriage red train that goes up a special track which has an interlocking mechanism along the centre of the track, to provide extra traction. It’s needed—the Jungfraubahn goes in about 90 minutes from 2,061 mt to 3,454 mt. The initial few minutes were unexceptional, and then the train entered a tunnel cut right through Jungfrau’s neighbours, the Eiger and the Mönch. This can be a harrowing experience if you’re prone to claustrophobia, because from this point onwards the train remained in the tunnel. It stopped twice, for 5 minutes each time, at Eigerwand and Eismeer, both basically viewing platforms screened off with glass, and with toilets nearby. By this time, the train was on such a steep gradient that I, sitting opposite Tarun and facing the back of the train, found myself sliding inexorably forwards!

At about 4.30 PM, we finally arrived at our destination. The Jungfrau station is small and dark and gloomy, with bare rock on all sides. We discovered to our dismay that the last train down to Kleine Scheidegg is at 5.50, so we had just a little over an hour to see what we had to of Jungfrau.

The `Top of Europe’ appellation tagged on to Jungfrau is misleading since Europe’s highest mountain is Elbrus (5,642 mt), and the highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc, at 4,810 mt: Jungfrau’s 4,158 mt. But this is high enough for people like us, who’d never have the time and energy to actually trudge up there on our own steam.

Jungfrau is tourist trap through and through, and it seems to be specifically geared to trapping Indian tourists! We saw large groups of our fellow countrymen (the only other significantly large groups were Japanese tourists), making their way to the souvenir shops and the Bollywood Restaurant. This wasn’t quite our cup of tea, so we headed for the Ice Palace, a short meander through an all-ice tunnel. The curving walls, the floor, the roof—everything’s ice, though there are sturdy metal railings along the side. The floor, fortunately, wasn’t slippery. At regular intervals in the Ice Palace are displays of ice sculptures: a family of penguins, a bear, and a particularly fine one of fishing eagles.

That done, we made our way past the watch shops (yes, they’re here too) and through the door that leads out onto the Plateau. The Plateau is just that: a virgin ridge of snow and ice on the Jungfrau, fenced off on all sides by a heavy nylon rope, and with a Swiss flag flapping in the breeze. After hours of constant traffic, the snow had become slush and then turned semi-frozen and slippery in the extreme. The wind howled and snarled about us, so that within 5 minutes we were pretty much semi-frozen ourselves and ready to get back inside. Walking back down the (admittedly gentle) slope to the door proved to be an exercise in balancing: it was so slippery, we nearly went down a couple of times. But, despite the bitter cold, the lashing wind and the slippery snow underfoot, we both thought the Plateau was the best part of our Jungfrau trip. Tip#3: Wear your shades—the sunlight on the snow can be blinding.

Back into the building that houses the station, souvenir shops, restaurants etc, and we took the elevator up to the Sphinx. This is slightly higher than the Plateau, but is a more sanitised version: it consists of a glass-enclosed viewing platform, from which a door leads out onto a sturdy platform of metal grids, with railings all around—so no chance of slipping. A metal panel set into one side of the railing marks each peak visible from that point, so you can identify the mountains you’re looking at.

We were now nearly at 5.30 PM, so we nipped down to the main tourist centre, which also houses a post office. Here, we let ourselves succumb and bought a postcard which we hurriedly scribbled and posted before making our way to the station to begin the hour-and-a-half journey to Kleine Scheidegg and back, via Interlaken, to Lausanne. This time around, though, just for a change of scenery, we took the Lauterbrunnen route from Kleine Scheidegg to Interlaken. There are waterfalls galore along this stretch, woods and dense banks of bright blue flowers: prettier than the Grindelwald route, I think.
We’d already decided that we’d not use the GoldenPass Panoramic to return, since it takes much longer than ordinary trains. Interlaken, unfortunately, is served by precious few trains, the only major city to which it’s connected being Bern. So we ended up going first to Bern and then catching a train to Lausanne—we got home past 11 PM. A long day and too much train travel, but also an unbeatable experience.

Top of a mountain
Jungfrau Region, Switzerland


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