(Lower-carbon) Footprints in the snow: the Swiss Alps by train
7 min read
With the highest railway in Europe – powered by local hydroelectricity – and easy train routes taking travellers from home turf to Alpine terrain, plus historic landscapes and World Cup-calibre skiing, the self-sufficient, storied region of Jungfrau is a mix of charmingly old-school and encouragingly modern. Working to better eco-practices and keeping slopes sustainable, it’s a choice destination for locomotive lovers and carbon-conscious skiers. Words by Amanda Nicholls
Devouring hot rosti in a Swiss restaurant thousands of metres up the towering Eiger Glacier, after a bracing morning skiing the Bernese peaks, a rascal of old boys from Basel spontaneously breaks into traditional song.
Each ducks out of the thunderous choral performance occasionally for a bite of fresh apple pie from the glacier bakery, a pinch of spirit-boosting snuff, and a quick glance outside at the wild, wuthering, blinding white of the mid-blizzard weather. The scene seems humorously, delightfully old-fashioned, as if we’ve strayed into a 1930s gentlemen’s winter sports club.
Later, another living tableau – the peaceful green hollow at the foot of the Eiger’s formidable north face – conjures a feeling of bygone times and even imagined worlds. Sounding like something from an ancient fairytale, Jungfrau’s alpaca-dotted village of Grindelwald was once hiked, and traversed with horse and carriage, by artists and composers ranging from Byron and Mendelssohn to Goethe and Wagner. The adjacent valley of Lauterbrunnen’s 72 rumbling waterfalls captured hearts and influenced works, even inspiring Tolkien’s elvish kingdom of Rivendell. Steeped in the folklore surrounding a trio of giant icy summits (the Eiger, meaning ‘ogre’; Jungfrau, ‘virgin maiden’; and Mönch, ‘monk’) the area has been anthropomorphised through a tale of unrequited love – felt for the maiden by the ogre, whose designs were constantly thwarted by the monk.
Romanticism’s respect for nature seems to be shared by many residents – still central to their rituals and way of life. Each spring sees their revered dairy cows paraded down from steep ridges, festooned with bells and flowers and celebrated with yodellers and horn players. Waste water is collected and channelled with particular attention paid to water protection zones, and the skyline remains relatively undisturbed, with minimal pylons kept low.
Despite feeling like a melting pot of Swiss history, tradition, and fantasy, this storied ski region is at once modern, progressive, forward-thinking. Its mountain transport and ski lift networks are powered by their own hydroelectric station (and have been for over a century) and its people are conscious of contemporary realities. One of the world’s most altitudinous international research stations, the solitary Sphinx Observatory, tests air quality and monitors glacial melt – although it could easily be mistaken for a Bond baddie HQ. There hasn’t been a winter this green in three decades and, as our relentlessly energetic 66-year-old ski guide Sandra points out, the mountains make up 60% of Switzerland’s surface area so they need to find solutions, all while keeping local economies stable and avoiding mass displacement in years to come.
Travelling from England by train is a joy, especially for the fearful flyer used to forcing themselves – sweaty palms and all – on to a plane to get their snow fix, and being clued up on the carbon savings reduces the discomfort around muscling in on this beautiful corner of the globe for a while. It’s London to Paris first on the Eurostar, Paris to Basel with TGV Lyria, and Swiss Railways for the last leg from Basel to Interlaken where we find lodgings at Hotel Interlaken, a former monastery shelter where 15th-century pilgrims once rested. The ride is smooth, efficient, comfortable, and far from the faff that switching to train travel for such a trip might seem. Speeding through English, French and Swiss countryside takes in winning snapshots of medieval Dijon and Bern, and the grey-blue lakeside turrets of 12th-century Thun Castle, coming into view on the final approach, look nothing short of magical.
Locomotives can be the theme not only for the journey to Jungfrau but throughout. Stay in car-free village Wengen, accessible only by the Wengernalp Railway, and descend via cable car after the day’s pursuits to the sight of trains criss-crossing the woodland landscape below like tiny toys on a play mat. Climb aboard a 19th-century cogwheel railway carriage and ride to Schnynige Platte, the starting point of hikes passing marmot colonies and lined with Alpine flowers (cue Edelweiss). A new train station opening in the valley will soon encourage people to ‘park and ride’, and reduce traffic on the road up to Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. Up on the Jungfraujoch – the icy saddle connecting the Jungfrau and the Mönch and known as the ‘top of Europe’ – a glacier train chugs along the continent’s highest railway station, through tunnels hand-carved by Italian workers in 1912. The pioneering technical achievement harnesses its own brake power to generate new electricity, creating enough energy from its downhill run to feed back into the grid and power its uphill climb.
To get there from the uber-modern Grindelwald Terminal – green-roofed to promote biodiversity and provide heat and sound insulation – we climb aboard the Eiger Express gondola cableway which ascends the north face and utilises tri-cable technology, meaning support masts are few, and no forest path had to be cut to accommodate them.
Up at the Eigergletscher station, having resisted the temptation to strap on skis and fly back down again, we change for the Jungfrau Railway and make our way to the Jungfraujoch. The self-restraint is worth it as we alight, some slightly giddy on account of the thinner air, to find more superlatives: Lindt’s loftiest chocolate shop and the Alps’ largest ice palace. Its karstic caves are full of ice sculptures, aged wine, and whisky barrels, with new heat exchanger cooling systems making use of waste heat to warm water, restaurants, and mountain dwellings. If Mother Nature sees fit not to dish you out 80mph winds of -12, there are also incredible panoramic views – including even the Black Forest, on clear days – to be had from the alfresco viewing deck.
As for the skiing, there’s a mix with plenty to challenge the beginner, intermediate and proficient skier: kilometre after kilometre of undulating piste plus sheer drops, racing circuits, a freestyle park and more. Among the options for those who don’t ski or board are idyllic winter trails, cliff-face walks, zip-wiring, gliding, night-sledging, and a large treasure hunt on the last weekend of the winter season.
We enthusiastically attempt World Cup downhill run the Lauberhorn – open to guests after the spectacular January contest. It’s 4.2km of fun (and falling over) until you whizz into Wengen. You get your photo taken in the starting house and have your speed measured to see how you compare with the greats, who tackle it at 160 km/h while navigating challenging jumps and a 42% incline. Our efforts are celebrated at Snowpenair, Jungfrau’s long-running music festival, where the après is erupting. Having made it to a third decade of hosting international stars such as Bryan Adams plus Swiss institutions (Polo Hofer, Patent Ochsner), it proves there’s nothing quite like skiing past the snow pines and over rocky brows to discover a huge party unfolding before you. We cackle until our sides hurt while making our way, arm in arm, across a human obstacle course of revellers doing their best to stay standing on the slippery slopes, the camaraderie as warming as the gluhwein.
Permanent après hotspots include down-to-earth Holzerbar, named after the lumberjacks (or holzfäller) who frequent it, and the 1960s bus home to Grindelwald’s Bus Stop Bar, serving ‘motor oil’ coffee and hot ginger liqueur made with glacier water. Check out the music stage fashioned from an old caravan or join the pool party in the snow during Grindelwald Les Bains every February. With 200 mountains in its sights, revolving 360-degree restaurant Piz Gloria (as seen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is worth a stop as well.
Due in part to the diversity of the residents, the food offering is fairly varied. Plenty of Portuguese folk live in the area and the spectrum of visitors includes Indian and Chinese internationals drawn by Jungfrau’s Bollywood film locations as well as its natural wonders. If schnitzel isn’t your thing, you can find everything from Italian to Mongolian dishes, vegan fondue to currywurst, Asian noodles to aloo gobi in the glacier’s Indian restaurant. At some point you’ll likely come across Switzerland’s fizzy soft drink of choice – a mild, refreshing, waste-conscious whey creation made from milk processing by-products. Sounds gross; tastes surprisingly good.
Room for improvement here? Perhaps a direct London-to-Basel route would just have perfected the experience. Rumour has it that, as part of the great train travel revival, this could potentially be in the pipeline, and we are completely on board.
How do we get there? You can book the whole journey through Switzerland Travel Centre for no extra cost when booked as part of a holiday package, so you don’t need to buy each leg independently; switzerlandtravelcentre.com (for rail-only bookings, a booking fee of £35pp per return journey applies). How much does it cost? Standard return London to Paris from £78pp (Eurostar), standard one-way Paris to Basel from EUR 49pp (TGV Lyria EUR), standard one-way Basel to Interlaken from EUR 39pp (SBB).