Jungfrau Diary: Mountain trains and happy feet

The Swiss have a train for every terrain, and some of the heritage railway systems are over a hundred years old. In the late summer of 2016, I rode a great variety of them to explore the Jungfrau region, Switzerland’s tourism goldmine

Modern travel has made feet optional. You can go anywhere you want without as much as wiggling your toes. Despite healthy legs and an appetite for mountain hikes, I’d give anything to be transported without breaking a sweat. That’s why trains make me feel alive. The view is never boring and the rhythm is calming, and the absence of road rage puts me in an agreeable mood.

In September 2016, my love for mountains met my love for trains. I made for Interlaken, where Yash Chopra had found his muse. So grateful were the Swiss to the late Bollywood filmmaker for celebrating their landscapes that they declared him an Ambassador of Interlaken. After his death in 2012, he was conferred an honour otherwise reserved only for Adolf Guyer-Zeller, the visionary industrialist who established the Jungfrau Railway — he had a train named for him. He was also felicitated with a life-size statue, which graces the Kursaal Garden in Interlaken.

The memorial to filmmaker Yash Chopra in Interlaken (L), the Jungraubahn mountain train in Lauterbrunnen, and the Jungfraujoch station, the highest in Europe

The Swiss have a train for every terrain, and some of the heritage railway systems are over a hundred years old. Over the next week, I rode a great variety of them to explore the Jungfrau region, Switzerland’s tourism goldmine. From Interlaken Ost, between the lakes Brienz and Thun linked by the River Aare, trains open up the breathtaking alpine landscape while making it unbelievably accessible.

Trundling aboard a swift mountain train to the gateway of the Jungfrau region, I was soon breathing the oxygen of the Alps. An arc of mountains swept the horizon. The skies were dotted with parasailers and hang-gliders.

The alpine panorama of the Jungfrau region is painted with the innervating greens of meadows and the rejuvenating azure of mountain lakes. It is stippled with the tans, blacks and whites of grazing cows, their bells tinkling in harmony with the yodels of cowhands. The dark blankets of conifer and the slaty greys of bare mountainside are whisked up into foamy white snowdrifts above the tree line. Thrushes skulk in the shrubbery, blackbirds sing hosannas from the steeples, and choughs glide in the high passes.

From picturesque Grindelwald, it’s a short hike to the First Cliff Walk by Tissot, a safe but vertigo-challenging way to enjoy the Swiss Alps

Tucked into a Kodachrome valley amidst this magical tableau is Grindelwald. The resort town gazes at the snowy spire of Eiger, flanked by the grim countenance of Mönch and the demure cheek of Jungfrau. The three alpine peaks enclose the saddle of the Aletsch Glacier. At 3,454 metres, served by the highest train station on the continent, Jungfraujoch — the Top of Europe — is a playground for skiers and tobogganers. And holidaymakers of a more lazy compulsion, such as myself.

On my first day, our tour group took a cable car to Grindelwald First where we enjoyed the First Cliff Walk by Tissot. Trudging along a ramp hugging a vertical cliff, we battled vertigo to admire the tapestry of mountains, waterfalls and valleys spread-eagled beneath us. The hike downhill was energetic, and at supper we warmed up over pots of fondue.

From nearby Wilderswil, a heritage train with open observation cars ferries the traveller to Schynige Platte for a lung-inflating hike in a fragrant alpine garden, followed by a delicious lunch enjoyed to the rousing lilt of alphorns reverberating amid the amphitheatre of mountains. A completely different view and experience can be enjoyed at Harder-Kulm, a castle-like restaurant accessible by a funicular railway that skims up the steep gradient gazing down at ibexes grazing on the crags.

At Jungfraujoch, the top of Europe, the panorama is one reserved for angels

But the proverbial icing on this Swiss chocolate cake is the ride to Jungfraujoch. Alighting to the welcoming barks of Swiss mountain dogs at Kleine Scheidegg, 2,061 metres, we boarded the cogwheel train that chugged through heated tunnels. The flank of Eiger imposed to our left. To our right, slopes and valleys fell away like details in a miniature painting. At Eismeer, we gazed through glass at icefalls and snowfields stretching to infinity. Then, up in the snowy heights of Jungfraujoch, we breathed that rarer, higher air that mortals are allowed.

I unwrapped a bar of hazelnut chocolate that someone on the train had given me and sank my chattering teeth into it. I felt alive to be at the top of Europe, and all the more smug that I had made it there by train.

A version of this piece first appeared in the November-December 2017 issue of asiaSpa India magazine

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