Jungfrau Express centenary – full version

This story appeared in an escorted touring supplement in the Telegraph over the weekend.

The paper doesn’t post the link online, so I’ve reproduced the text here for anyone who missed it. The trip was arranged by  Great Rail Journeys.

It started with a small, pink piece of paper and a date: August 12, 1963. My father, Christopher, remembered the day well when he found the old Swiss Rail Pass amongst family heirlooms in the attic. He was in his early twenties then, on holiday with his parents, younger brother and sister, the latter celebrating her 21st birthday at the Schweizerhof Hotel in Interlaken.

Nearly half a century later, dad and I are stood outside the building that once housed the Schweizerhof, the icy stillness of a winter morning in Interlaken engulfing us. We had decided to return but this was more than just a meandering trip down memory lane.

My mother had died some eight months before and dad hadn’t been on holiday for years, having nursed her through the final years.

We deserved a father-and-son bonding break after a difficult year, but dad felt he wanted the security of a group trip to ease him back into taking holidays. After a bit of surfing we decided on an eight-day trip with GRJ – the tour appealed for the efficiency of Europe’s high-speed rail network.

The basic premise also suited us well: from a hotel base in Interlaken, we would take an organized excursions each day to places across the region, plus have the benefit of a Swiss Rail Pass for the free day.

While I remained unsure about an organised tour, the St Pancras rendez-vous on a chilly December morning assured me the age range was broader than I had expected. Our group was a mix of rail enthusiasts, some clucking elderly ladies and a majority of early retirees trying a group trip for a first tentative time – many were people much like us.

What’s more, the pre-Eurostar chatter focused on the fact our trip to Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland coincided with a major anniversary: 100 years of the highest mountain railway in Europe, the Jungfrau Express.

Soon after our visit, the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter used the north face of the Jungfrau to illuminate a series of installations, launching the centenary celebrations that will culminate on August 1, Switzerland’s national day.

Trans-Europe Express

Having settled into our base at Interlaken’s Metropole Hotel, following a long trans-Europe rail transfer via Luxembourg, we regrouped after breakfast for the first full-day excursion.

The rail journey from Interlaken to the picture-postcard village of Murren was our first real taste of the snow-tinged mountain air. The village is best known for its cable car ride up to the cloud-scraping Mount Schilthorn, whose revolving restaurant featured in the Bond film, On His Majesty’s Secret Service.

Lunch at a local cafe of traditional roast potatoes and pork was a chance for dad and I to talk about holidays he had shared with mum – they met on a holiday to Italy in 1966. The triumvirate of peaks, the Eiger, Monch and the Jungfrau, although slightly obscured by mist, were our silent companions at lunch and we reveled in the sense of mountain-air calm.

Not even the kitsch soundtrack of Bond theme tunes could spoil the moment.

That night, we dined as a group in a room off the main restaurant with large round tables and a fairly basic choice of menu options. There was a smattering of chatter about prescription specs but the table talk also took in the misdemeanors of Fred the Shred (courtesy of two ex-Royal Bank of Scotland employees) and tips on how to survive the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from a local resident travelling by herself after a friend dropped out.

A few glasses of wine helped things along but we did notice people turning up early on subsequent nights to bag the best tables.

The next day we visited Grindelwald, a bustling little village overshadowed by the north face of the Eiger with its towering 3970m summit.

After some gentle exploring, we took a group carriage ride down to the village of Grund, following country lanes of sugar-coated fire trees and icing-sugar hillsides, before stopping for mulled wine and ginger cake in a little café. The low-slung winter sunshine glanced off the mountains around us.

Top of the world

We used the free time later that afternoon to explore central Interlaken, the town pitched between the twin lakes, Brienz and Thun. Dad remembered a Sunday afternoon stroll along the Hoheweg, Interlaken’s main street, plus a horse and carriage ride along the Hohematte, the central park with unobstructed views across to the Jungfrau. Both have survived the years.

He also remembered an evening show at the Kursaal concert hall, now disappointingly a casino, and buying chocolates at Schuh, the grand old dame of Interlaken cafés. Schuh is today, we find as we stop for coffee, still going strong, expanded into a genteel coffee shop with an adjoining exclusive chocolaterie.

The highlight of the trip for both the serious railway enthusiasts and casual rail fans such as us was the ride on the centenary-celebrating Jungfrau Express.

“In the pantheon of great rail journeys, the Jungfrau Express is right up there,” says follow traveller Callum Macleod of Wiltshire. “It’s not a scenic journey in the same way as the Glacier or Bernina Express, but the feat of engineering fascinates me.”

Italian miners first blasted through the mountain to Jungfraujoch on February 21, 1912, to complete the construction of the railway tunnel. They’d been trying since 1896. The railway brought a new breed of genteel visitor to the Jungfrau region and, today, carries around 700,000 passengers per year.

Just getting to the train is quite a journey in itself. We changed trains first at Kleine Scheidegg, where ski runs whoosh beside the track in a blur of goggles and baby grows, and cable cars trundle overhead.

From here to Europe’s highest railway station at Jungfraujoch, located at an air-thinning altitude of 3,454m, the feat-of-engineering railway climbs cautiously through a tunnel at a steep gradient of one in four. There are two stops during the 20-minut climb to admire our progress from enclosed viewing platforms and an audio-visual explanation of the journey throughout.

As we stepped out of the train into what feels like a space station, we were bombarded with Asian tour groups, promotions for watch companies and a scrum of captive-audience eateries.

More calming was an al-fresco platform adjoining a domed research station, where I imagine serious-minded boffins in white coats resolving global warming while tourists outside try to identify Italy on the snow-meets-sky horizon.

On the road again

On the way home back to London via Cologne the next day, I fell into conversation with first-time clients Chris and John Harwood of Lancashire.

“I would have liked a bit more flexibility about the meal times but it is nice to hand all the catering arrangements over to someone else,” says Chris. “It helped having someone to explain what train and what platform,” added John. “We’d have been lost on our own.”

For dad the convenience of a group trip made sense: like-minded company, an experienced tour guide and a ready-made itinerary. While I prefer my travels to be a little independent on the whole, I could see how the experience has given him confidence to travel again.

In fact, he has just booked another trip. He’s heading to Melbourne to visit the sister whose birthday they celebrated in Interlaken that day in 1963. Amongst his luggage will be a small, pink rail pass to pass on the idea that, no matter what age we are, we all deserve a holiday now and then.

Light installation by the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.