The view from the Jungfraujoch observation deck is, quite simply, spectacular. Tucked in the saddle between two of Switzerland’s highest mountains, the highest railway station in Europe offers spectacular Alpine vistas of glaciers and snowy peaks. All of Switzerland lies to the north, as Italy tumbles away to the south.
Well, that’s what our glossy postcards show, at least.
The only tumbling we’re doing is back indoors, as an unseasonal storm system dumps half-a-metre of snow in our path. Out on the exposed observation deck, flying ice is hurled against our eyelashes by gale force winds, and all I can make out is the thermometer reading minus-something-or-other. Sunshine and views are in short supply and we look for all the world like tourists inside a shaken snow globe. Which, in a way, I guess we are.
But even without the views the trip up the Jungfraujoch ranks as one of the greatest railway journeys in Europe, offering picturesque valleys, spectacular engineering and enough bucolic Swiss scenes to grace a lifetime of chocolate boxes.
From the town of Interlaken the impressive cogwheel railway climbs past emerald pastures, snowy fields and through the very heart of the Eiger to reach the underground station and observatory over 3500-metres above sea level.
Even more incredible, is that the railway was built just a few years after the Wright brothers took their first flight. While plans for a train to the summit of the Jungfraujoch were first mooted in 1893, it was another 15 years before the tracks finally reached the top.
“The railway celebrates its centenary in 2012,” says our guide Josef Erni with just a touch of pride, as we chug past the impossibly pretty village of Lauter Brunnen. Waterfalls cascade from nearly ever cliff, but all eyes are squinting towards the towering Staubbach Falls; a popular drop-zone for BASE-jumpers
A retired engineer, Josef has lived in the area for nearly 40 years and is a wealth of information as we make our way heavenwards. Past the village of Wengen, with its popular ski resorts and kilometres of piste, eyes turn towards the distant peaks. Or, rather, the cloud where we’re assured the peaks are usually to be found.
“The peaks Mönch and Jungfrau refer to the monks and nuns that grazed their herds on the high pastures in summer,” explains Josef. “A peak for the men, a peak for the women! On the left is the Eiger, one of the most challenging rock climbs in the world. It was only in 1938 that someone managed to climb the famous North Face.”
The sheer rock of the North Face looms above us as the train pauses at Eigergleischer station – the train stops three times en route to allow travellers to admire the view and adjust to the thin air of 2320m.
And it’s only up from here as the train follows a track tunnelled into the very bedrock of the Eiger, stopping only for occasional glimpses out of viewpoints cut from the rock face. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that’s worth the journey on its own.
Which is just as well, when the views don’t play ball.
All the more reason to savour the journey back to Interlaken; our route wending through pastoral valleys of wooden chalets and tinkling cowbells. The village of Grindelwald appears lifted from the pages of a Heidi storybook, while patches of wildflowers speckle the hillsides. It’s a soft, welcoming landscape that’s impossible not to love.
Nearly all roads and railways in this area lead to Interlaken, and while the trip to the Jungfraujoch is the area’s most popular attraction, the town is a scenic, sedate spot in itself.
A wander along the historic Höheweg reveals chocolate and watch shops aplenty, while further towards Lake Brienz a tranquil Japanese garden offers reflective koi ponds and quiet pathways. Both are in stark contrast to the backdrop of gothic gargoyles and rough-hewn walls of the historic Schlosskirche beyond.
The ‘Castle Church’ of Interlaken was built in the 1300s, when “its lofty chancel was the most stately example of High Gothic architecture in the canton of Bern,” reads the church record. It wasn’t all power and glory though: in 1528 the church was closed and used as a granary and wine cellar, only to reopen in 1909. Today, it’s a peaceful escape from the hordes of Asian tourists, and worth a visit for its impressive stained glass windows.
Perhaps fittingly for Switzerland, my itinerary was timed to the second and there was sadly little time to linger in Interlaken. No time for a boat cruise on Lake Thun, or a stroll to the swimming beach at Neuhaus. No space for a trip up the cableway to Harder Kulm: the dramatic views of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz would have to wait. The annual yodelling festival was just a few days off, but Swiss clocks – and trains – wait for no man. The Golden Pass Line was waiting.
Switzerland is famous for its commuter railways, but it’s also surprisingly good at combining transport with tourism, and a number of scenic railways criss-cross the Alpine foothills. A circuitous route would lead me back to international departures at Zurich airport the same evening, but why not see some scenery en route, I reasoned?
And with the Golden Pass Line it’s all about the scenery. First class carriages (it’s worth paying the little extra) boast bulbous windows that cover most of the roof, offering panoramic views as the line links the Vaud Riviera to Lake Lucerne.
Skirting the shores of Lake Brienz, the deepest in Switzerland, the showering Giessbach Falls immediately has cameras clicking. Past Brienz, the line climbs over high pastures towards the Brünig pass; a scenic cutting surrounded by more chocolate-box scenery. Down into the valley below and Lake Lungern gives way to Sarnen, Alpnach and – far too soon - Lake Lucerne. A night or two in Lucerne is ideal to soak up this 14th century town, but if – like me – you have barely an hour, it’s handy that the city’s most famous sight is right on the station’s doorstep.
The gorgeous Chapel Bridge straddles the Reuss River, and dates back nearly 700 years. Well, it did until a discarded cigarette burnt most of it to the ground in 1993. Still, the 204-metre bridge has been meticulously restored and retains all the flower-boxed, wood-carved romance of historic Switzerland.
Photos taken and paddling swans admired, the Pre-Alpine Express was our last stretch on the rails to Zurich. A far cry from the dramatic Alpine valleys, the surprisingly sedate Express travels through rolling hills and broad lakes to show off the softer side of Switzerland. The lakes lose their glacial blue, and birds of prey soar between tracts of deep-green woodland. It’s countryside less jagged Toblerone, and more seductive Lindt.
You could ride the Express all the way to gorgeous Lake Constance, but I have a plane to catch and my boat across Zürichsee is waiting. At the charming lakeside town of Rapperswil it’s just a few steps to the ferries that ply the forty-kilometres of water lapping against the capital’s footsteps, and make a fantastic way to quietly soak up your last hours in Switzerland.
Stepping onto the pier in Zurich you half expect to see bankers counting gold on every street corner, but it’s a city that wears its wealth conservatively. An embellished bank building here, a row of luxury vehicles there… trams still trundle through the streets and laid-back pavement cafes spill onto discreet squares.
It’s also a city of two halves.
While the old money banks dominate the left shore of the Limmat River, most tourists head straight for the designer boutiques and trendy eateries of the right bank. It’s here you’ll find the real magic of Zurich; the cobbled streets of the Altstadt (Old Town), and the high tower of the gothic Grossmünster.
There’s stunning décor and design at Innenarchitektur on Spiegergaße, and wonderful art at the AHA gallery. There are Impressionist collections to admire at Kunsthaus art museum, or a cheesy raclette to tuck into at the traditional Swiss eateries.
It’s a city that wears old and new comfortably together, preserving its history and embracing the modern. It’s a city I’ll come back to in a heartbeat. And – if I can time the trains just right – perhaps I’ll forgive the Jungfrau and give the nun’s mountain another chance to show off her splendid views.
• Getting there: Swiss International Air Lines boasts a revamped Business Class cabin, and flies daily from Johannesburg to Zurich. Visit www.swiss.com, or call 0860 04 05 06.
• Getting around: From Zurich airport the excellent Swiss railway system is your best way to travel around. If you plan on doing a lot of travelling a Swiss Pass, also valid on buses and ferries, is your best bet. Visit www.sbb.ch.
• Plan your trip: www.myswitzerland.com is the offical website of the Swiss National Tourist Office.
First published in Garden&Home Magazine