Mountains are to be climbed but I have never been drawn to ropes, picks, anchors and spikes. I’m more for sitting back and letting a train or cable car do the hard work for me. That is one reason I loved going to Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.
The Top of Europe is 3454 meters above sea level in the Swiss Alps above the town of Interlaken. With a majestic backdrop of ice, snow and rock, the exhilaration of being there is palpable yet all you have to do is sit back as three separate trains take you progressively higher and higher.
The first train starts at Interlaken East station. We chose to board one stop along the line at the cute village of Wilderswil where accommodation was cheaper, parking was easier and people were friendlier than in the city.
The Bernese Oberland Railway travels from Wilderswil into the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. In fact, our train split a few stations later with the front half going to Lauterbrunnen and the back half going to Grindelwald. If you are going to the Top of Europe it doesn’t matter which way you go.
We choose to travel via Grindelwald, a dreamlike mountain resort under the infamous North Face of the Eiger. The surrounding alpine pastures are achingly idyllic and cable-cars make it easy to reach scenic mountain lookouts, the Grindelwald Glacier, and lakes. It is no wonder that this landscape has been a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond movies.
From Grindelwald we catch the narrow-gauge rack railway to Kleine Scheidegg. This is where the trains from Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen meet and from where the train direct to Jungfraujoch departs. The scenery is dramatic as we enter the snow zone and everything turns to white.
Cable cars head in all directions from remote stations and even in May some skiers are out chasing the last runs for the year. Kleine Scheidegg is the starting point for scenic hikes in summer and it is a significant winter sports centre.
The final leg of the train journey to the Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe) through the rock of the Eiger and Mönch is an incredible experience. The majority of this section is in a tunnel but you get to enjoy stunning views from Eismeer (Sea of Ice). The cogwheel railway track to Jungfraujoch, on gradients up to 25%, was completed in 1912 and has been in continuous use ever since.
At the top
Arriving at the top brings new levels of anticipation and it is not long before we have icy air streams across our faces, snow crunching under our feet, and a view which nearly takes our breath away even with the cloud and fog we are coping with today.
When we visited here some 25 years ago there were limited things to do at the top. Not anymore. Over the next few hours, we were absorbed by the 360 degree cinematic Jungfrau Panorama, intrigued by the lights and music of the Alpine Sensation, and fascinated by the huge Ice Palace where enormous caverns and passageways have been carved into the ice displaying crystal-like sculptures of eagles, bears, penguins and so forth.
The high-point of any visit is the Sphinx Terrace attached to the Observatory and Research Station (top image). We ride Switzerland’s fastest lift to the terrace and are rewarded with spectacular views across the Aletech Glacier which is over 22 kilometres long and nearly a kilometre thick. Sadly, the views into France, Italy and Germany are masked by low-cloud and fog.
Now we brave the cold and venture out on to the Glacier Plateau. It is briefly majestic but then it turns bleak, freezing cold, and merciless. In better weather you can skim down the slope on snow tubes, skis or snowboards, but not today. The 250 metre-long zipline is not providing an adrenalin rush to anyone either We quickly retreat inside.
Mountain air makes you hungry and thirsty so fortunately there are several restaurants and cafes. Top of the line is Restaurant Crystal but we opted for the self-service Aletsch. For those who brought their own food, the Cafe Bar provided drinks.
There are a few shops here with souvenirs, clothing and other items but the Lindt Swiss Chocolate Heaven seems by far the most popular. This advertises itself as the highest Lindt Chocolate Shop in the World and there are six interactive exhibits and a few products only available here.
The time has come to leave so we retrace our journey back to Kleine Scheidegg then take the next train this time to Lauterbrunnen before making one more change before we reach Wilderswil. It has been a great day despite less than ideal weather and we would do it again in a heartbeat.
If you go
The standard return fare from Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch-Top of Europe station is around a staggering SAR 3200 (European summer), and SAR 2850 for the rest of the year. Consideration should be given to buying one of the Swiss travel cards to reduce this price. I strongly advise taking an early train to avoid the worst of the crowd.
PHOTOS: By Phensri Rutledge
For more of Len’s adventures, visit LenRutledge.com