Switzerland Day 3 – to the Top of Europe!
We woke up in Wilderswil with excitement in our eyes. Today was going to be something special. Today we were going to go to the top of a mountain – 3454m above sea level. We were going to a land of glaciers, snow and more from the Jungfraujoch.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Andrew. Isn’t that an awfully big hill to cycle up?” And you’re right. That’s why we weren’t going by bike.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Andrew. How on earth are you going to get up there if not cycling.”
Pah. Have I taught you nothing in this blog? Come on. It’s up a mountain. It’s Switzerland.
You go by train of course!
The excursion to the Jungfraujoch and its visitor centre is one of the showpiece excursions of the region, and its train station is the highest one in Europe. The journey there actually involves three different train lines which all interconnect at various stations, as you can see on this handy example of my map making skills.
The route starts on the Berner Oberland Bahn at Interlaken and there’s a circular bit in the middle which you can go round either clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on your mood. The trains all meet up neatly for the final train line – the Jungfraubahn, which takes you on the final segment, to the appropriately named “Top of Europe” station.
As you might expect, a journey to the Top of Europe isn’t cheap – coming in at CHF 177.80 (roughly £90 at the exchange rate during our visit) although we didn’t actually know that at the time as all the leaflets on the matter push the Jungfraubahnen Pass, which for CHF 195 (roughly £100 during our visit) gives you 6 days of travel on most of the cable cars, mountain railways, funicular and a bus (just the one!) in the region. The Pass doesn’t cover the underground segment of the Jungfraubahn (the dotted red one in the above map) – although you do get to travel on that for half price.
We didn’t really need the 6 day ticket so planned to just buy the day return from the station, whatever the cost (and expecting it to be pricey). However as we discussed our plans over place mats at breakfast (which cunningly had a map on them showing all the cable cars, railways, funiculars and the bus on them) we were approached by a lady and a gentleman.
“Would these be any use to you?” she asked, showing us two Jungfraubahnen passes. “They’ve got three days left on them, and we’re going home today and they won’t be much use in Belgium.”
To say we were stunned is perhaps an understatement. Suddenly our expensive day out had got a whole lot cheaper – we would have done this trip whatever the cost (and whilst expensive, it’s an amazing day out), but instead of paying nearly £200 between us, we’d just need to pay CHF 52 each – roughly £25 between us – for the underground segment to the top.
Thanking the Belgium couple profusely for their generosity, we finished breakfast and headed for the station, bought our extension ticket, and waited for the 0910 to Grindelwald/Lauterbrunnen, still in a state of stunnedness,
No matter which way round you go, the first train is the same one – the 12 carriage Berner Oberland Bahn train divides into two at Zweilütschinen into two trains, each of six carriages.
The Berner Oberland Bahn is primarily a normal public transport operator, however it is the linchpin in the whole Jungfraujoch excursion, as it links the tourist capital of Interlaken (and therefore Swiss federal railways) with the tourist orientated Wegeneralp Bahn and Jungfraubahn – hence the very long trains in operation.
Indeed, whilst BOB (which, co-incidentally, also owns the Schynige Platte Bahn) is mostly publicly owned, it is in joint management with the private sector, tourism based, Jungfrau Railways group, which owns the Jungfraubahn and the Wegeneralp Bahn.
We’d arbitrarily picked to go clockwise, so headed for the rear of the train which would to to Grindelwald along a fantastically picturesque route.
As we chugged (or whatever the electric train equivalent of chugging is) along the valley, slowly but surely up hill (most of the BOB is standard railway, but it has a few rack sections to help it climb) we were treated to some stunning views – a taste of things to come.
30 minutes later (and having risen a further 450m above sea level) we were off the train, waiting on the platform at Grindelwald for train two – the 0947 Wengeneralp Bahn train to Kleine Scheidegg.
A modern green and yellow liveried train (actually two 3 car trains coupled together) greeted us as it ascended from Grindelwald Grund station – Grindelwald is a town on a hill, and the line goes down from Grindelwald to Grund station, before starting its ascent to Kleine Scheidegg. We took our seat in a carriage with panoramic windows which offered great views whilst simultaneously causing photographic problems by putting window reflections in every shot.
Reflections aside, the views were amazing – the snow topped mountains of the Mönch, Eiger and Jungfrau ahead of us, competing with fantastic shots back looking down on Grindelwald as the train snaked its way up hill.
The journey seem far too quick – we ascended up another 1029m above sea level in just 30m, with the train depositing us at Kleine Scheidegg – the station where the two Wegeneralp Bahn branches meet and connect with the Jungfraubahn which takes you up the final way.
With just enough time to admire the fantastic scenery (how many train depots are located next to snow topped mountains?) we boarded train 3 – the red liveried 1030 Jungfraubahn train to Jungfraujoch.
It’s worth at this point taking a little time out to take a look at the Jungfraubahn. It was the brain child of industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller, who came up with the plan to build a mostly underground railway, inside a mountain range up to a height of 3454m above sea level, with work starting in 1896 – four years after the Wengeneralp Bahn had run its first train to Kleine Scheidegg.
Guyer-Zeller wasn’t the first person to decide it was a good idea to build the rain – the first proposals were made in 1870 – but it was his scheme that got off the ground.
The overground segment to Eigergletscher was opened in 1898 and the work to go all the way to the top was planned to take a further 5 years, costing CHF 10m. In the end it took a total of 16 years and cost CHF 15m. Up to 300 people were involved in the build in any one time, and during the winter, the building team were completely isolated from the outside world. According to the railway company’s leaflet “Between heaven and earth”, this meant the advance delivery of 1,500 litres of wine (1 litre per day per worker), 2 tons of potatoes for the Swiss workers and 800kg of macaroni for the Italians. 3000 eggs were also sent up, along with 50,000 cigars.
And what a railway they built. The overground section offers more amazing views as it climbs up the outside of the Eiger, before popping inside to the tunnelled section.
Now you might think that once you’re underground, the views stop. Thankfully not so. Before you get to the top, there’s two stations in the Eiger, and in the 1970s someone had the idea of installing panoramic windows in them. Yep, not only did they put a railway in a mountain, but they installed windows in one too.
The first stop, Eismeer, gives an amazing view looking down at Grindelwald, far down in the valley.
Next stop is Eismeer, which gives views of the glacier.
Despite the stopping points, and the opportunity to go and admire the views, most people seemed surprisingly reluctant to leave the train. Only about a quarter of the passengers bothered with most staying resolutely in their seats. It reminded me of the day before on the Schynige Platte Bahn where an elderly Japanese woman sat reading her newspaper, completely ignoring the amazing scenery until round about half way up when she suddenly leapt into live and starting taking photos of anything and everything she could.
It was 1122 when we finally stepped off train 3 into the underground station at the Jungfraujoch and one of the first things you see is a sign inviting you not to rush around. There’s a good reason for that – the air here is very thing. Indeed I’d already noticed that at Eismeer station where Catherine decided we needed to hurry back from the panoramic windows in case the train left without us (it didn’t and we proceeded to sit on the train for about three more minutes before it moved). It wasn’t long before I was feeling a little dizzy and in need of a bit of a sit down.
Having taken a rest, it was time to check out the activities – you can go out on the terrace, go out on the plateau, on the glacier, watch something in the cinema, eat, drink, be merry and visit the ice palace. And more.
We headed to the Ice Palace – where, as you might be able to guess – it’s very ice focused. Ice sculptures, ice corridors, ice floors. That kind of thing. Glorious sculptures of bears and penguins sat along with odd blue lit sculptures, and an ice “bar” which you could lean on and have your photo taken at, should you be so inclined.
Which we weren’t.
The ice palace done, we headed out to the plateau – an area on the snow where you can soak in the great scenery of the area. Whilst the ice palace is good, lets face it, this is what you really want to see.
As well as snow topped mountains, the plateau area also gave us a chance to see the Jungfraujoch centre from the outside.
The initial "Tourist Lodge" was opened in 1912 with the railway. It could house a mere 100 people. This was added to in 1924 by a "House above the Clouds" hotel but both were destroyed by fire in 1972.
After using the station as a temporary restaurant, a replacement facility was opened in 1975, which itself was incorporated into the buildings seen here – Top of Europe was opened in 1987. On peak days, more than 4000 people come here and in 1995 (the last year the stats were for in the railway company leaflet) just under 500,000 made the trip in the year.
More important than the view however was food. Yep, it was lunchtime and we were heading for the highest altitude meal of our lives. And when you’re 3454m above sea level in a Swiss mountain and you’re hungry, what do you eat? Hotdog? Burger? Rosti? Fondue? Curry?
I know what you’re wondering. Andrew, you’re thinking, why is there curry at the Top of Europe? I mean it’s not the obvious thing… And no, it’s not. But there’s a reason. See at one time, Bollywood production companies used to film in the Kashmir. Then tensions increased and it ceased to be a safe place to film at, so they went looking for a new location. And they found the perfect double in Switzerland. And where filming comes, follows tourism. As such, thousands of people come from the Indian subcontinent every year to do some Bollywood tours and see the sights. And when they come (judging by the business of the restaurant we were in) most of them seem to want to eat curry.
Hence the curry buffet, which was doing a busy trade despite being rather hidden in the complex.
Most of the curries are vegetarian (what was veggie was a regular question from most customers), with a single meat curry. There’s also rice, tomato soup salad and that well known curry bread product… baguette.
And you’re right. There is a lot of plastic there. And there’s a reason for that.
Naturally being 3454m above sea level, and with no road access, everything comes up by train and that includes the water which comes up in a special train. According to a fantastically informative 80 page leaflet we picked up, the Jungfraujoch visitor centre apparently gets through 9000m3 of water every year – 5000m3 of which is brought up by train. The remainder comes from melted snow and ice from the roofs and nearby rocks. Waste water goes down a 9.4km pipe!
With all the effort needed to get water up hill, they’re naturally keen not to use too much of it – and that includes not using it to wash up plates.
Tasty curry eaten, it was time to get in the lift to the highest part of the complex – the terrace of the Sphinx research centre, which is located higher up on the Mönch mountain, 3571m above sea level. The Jungfraujoch isn’t just a tourist attraction – there’s a plethora of research activities, a directional beam station, a weather station and the highest post office in Europe.
The dome of the Sphinx has a laser in it which does atmospheric sounding. This apparently gives information on the ozone layer. The big metal dome is also a nice target for lightening so the complex is surrounded by a Faraday cage to avert the risk. Which is handy to know when you’re stood on a metal gantry admiring the view.
As you might guess, the main reason to do this trip is scenery. Lots of stunning scenery. Every part of the day so far had featured stunning scenery, with the exception of the Ice Palace. Hey, even the Bollywood Restaurant had an amazing view of the glacier.
But it’s not all views, views, views you know. In fact there’s winter sports too – near the lift to the Sphinx is an exit out onto the glacier where you can take part in a number of activities.
There’s plenty to do. You can go down a giant zip wire (which was extremely tempting), go in the ski and snowboard park or enjoy a husky ride. Or, for reasons unknown to me, hit a golf ball into the snow. All good things I’m sure you agree. But all activities that required money and as we weren’t that fussed about hitting a golf ball into snow, we passed.
But one thing was free. And it looked fun. It was time to go snow discing!
If you’ve never come across snow discing, the concept is pretty simple. You take a circular based piece of plastic which looks like a giant frisbee with handles on it.
You then sit at the top of the snow disc run, and launch yourself down the slide. And you go zooming down, twisting from side to side as bumps in the snow make you twist round, before finally coming to rest in an entirely undignified position.
And then you leap up in excitement and rush up the slope to do it all over again! And again! And again! Until you realise you’re pushing small children into the snow in order to stop them hogging the run. Then you regain your composure, hand your snow disc in and go for a stroll in the snow.
It was around half two that the clouds started slowly appearing. After a morning of clear blue skies and bright sun, the weather was on the turn. It was time to head off the Top of Europe.
We’d done most things bar buy a cow bell from the amazing "Top of Europe Shop" which featured heavily in most of the publicity – which made it sound like some kind of top of mountain superstore rather than the large kiosk that it actually was.
We boarded train 4 – the 1500 (which was, tut, late) back to Kleine Scheidegg. Catherine suggested getting off at Eigergletscher station – the only overground station between Jungfraujoch and Kleine Scheidegg – and walk back down the hill to Kleine Scheidegg to soak in the views, which would also give me the chance to take more photos without pesky train windows getting in the way.
After being surrounded by snow, bundled up in fleeces, hats and, in Catherine’s case, a big scarf, it felt slightly odd to get off a train thirty minutes later and suddenly be back in the warmth and green grass.
And after the business and bustle of hordes of tourists, it was really nice to be out in the hillside with few people around.
It wasn’t to last – we had to get off the hills after all and that meant heading back to Kleine Scheidegg with its hustle, its bustle and its trains. Reluctant to go down straight away, we let one train go down towards Lauterbrunnen, and instead loitered, buying postcards and supping a cup of tea from an outside bar, which seemed strangely reluctant to charge us for the privilege.
Before long though, it was time to depart and we headed over to join our Wengeneralp Bahn train to Lauterbrunnen.
In contrast to the modern style train we’d come up the mountain, our next train was older with wooden seats and fantastic windows which came all the way down – allowing for photo opportunities without reflections. Oh and a lot more character too.
Two trains had departed around the same time and for some reason, most people had joined a newer train which went first and was jam packed. Joyously our carriage remained empty for most of the journey, until we arrived at the picturesque mountain town of Wengen where our peace was reduced by locals and tourists from the car free resort, joining us back to the valley.
Back down in the valley at Lauterbrunnen it was time to hit train 6 – the Berner Oberland Bahn train to Interlaken. And before long we were back at the hotel, eating our tea and watching the final act of the days weather. Torrential rain, lightening and thunder.
And the following evening, as we were about to set off and leave Wilderswil behind, Catherine thrust two Jungfraubahnen passes with one day left, into the hands of some other suspecting tourists – a family who apparently had never heard of the Jungfraujoch. Whether they found out what it was all about, well we’ll never know. But here’s hoping they did, and they enjoyed it.
Andrew would like to note that Jungfraubahnen six day passes are probably not transferable and as such, he can’t condone the needless giving away of travel tickets that you’re not going to use. He would also like to note that if you enjoyed the pictures of the Jungfraujoch, there’s even more from day 3 on Flickr – all part of his Switzerland 2008 photoset.