As myth and legend evaporated in the age of science the rocky triumverate became the highlight of the Bernese Oberland; a mountain ridge that dominated the skyline south of Interlaken with its icy glacial waters giving Brienzsee its distinctive colour. Today the region and its four distinct small towns, Murren, Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald and Wengen, are an adventurers playground marketed as the Top of Europe.
In winter the region is a skier's paradise while in summer the alpine meadown lose their snow cover and the lifts and gondolas fill up with walkers, mountain bikers and thrill seekers taking advantage of the highest railway station in Europe. Equally accessible from Zurich and Geneva using the superb Swiss railway system, the region boasts not just the highest railway station but some of the finest and most iconic views in the whole of Switzerland. From a revolving glass walled restaurant atop the Schilthorn to a railway that runs for 7 of its 9km length through a mountain the lofty peaks of the Eiger-Monch-Jungfrau are opened up to tourists while the towns of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen host local and international visitors in their thousands.
On previous visits I've always used Interlaken as a base, heading out each day by train to ride, zip-line and skydive, but on this trip I was part of a press-trip group and instead of day trips we were taking a much more intimate look at the two valleys either side of the Jungfrau. Instead of Interlaken we'd be overnighting in Murren and Grindelwald with the journey in between taking in Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and a ride on top of a gondola.
Hotel Jungfrau in Murren
Set high above the towering cliffs of the Lauterbrunnen valley Murren is a place never to be forgotten. Car-free it's accessed from Lauterbrunnen, 800 metres below, by a combination of cable-car and train and despite a population of just 450 it boasts in excess of 2000 hotel beds. In winter the 52km of ski runs are the main attraction but in summer the trail to Kleine Scheidegg is just one of many that draw hikers with a start point at over 1600m. For those wanting an even more spectacular view a cable car from Murren climbs a further 1300+ metres to Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant at the summit of the 2970m Shilthorn.
Famous as the location used for the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service the building of Piz Gloria's revolving restaurant was actually stalled until the venue was chosen for the film and the completion financed by it. Today as well as the restaurant, which turns 360 degrees every 55 minutes, Piz Gloria includes a mini "James Bond experience" still pulling the visitors in 49 years later.
The view from the Schilthorn
As things turned out on this trip my time on the Schilthorn was very limited. A twice delayed departure from Manchester Airport, and accidentally leaving my mobile phone at home, meant that by the time I landed in Zurich I was already playing catch-up with the rest of the group who'd set off from Gatwick. Armed with the almost mandatory Swiss Rail Pass and a knowledge of the route as far as Interlaken from previous trips reduced the time arrears from 3 hours to just one by the time I'd reached Murren. Literally dropping my bags in my room at Hotel Jungfrau and immediately heading out again I made Piz Gloria just as dinner was served. 14 hours on the go, 1 plane, 4 trains and 3 cable cars and after all that effort the spectacular views turned out to be mostly cloud! Yes, while the UK was sweltering in a heatwave I arrived to cloud and, once back in Murren, rain.
Sitting in my room in the Hotel Jungfrau that evening, watching England take on Columbia in the World Cup to a german commentary, I again reflected on the difference between the public perception of a "press trip" and the reality. No-one imagines a press trip to be a series of long days working from breakfast until sleep overtakes you but that's often the reality and by 8am next morning we were ready to go again. Breakfasted and with luggage dropped off at reception for onwards transportation there was barely time for more than a couple of couple of photos before we were heading back down to Lauterbrunnen on the cable car.
Lauterbrunnen translates as "many fountains" and the 72 waterfalls in this stunning valley are part of ther reason for the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, but again it was a case of touch-and-go in Lauterbrunnen, pausing only to cross the road and head for the train on the opposite flank of the valley and the ascent to Wengen. Home to the famous Lauberhorn downhill ski race every January Wengen sits on a terrace 400metres above Lauterbrunnen and was the birthplace of the package winter sports holiday thanks to Sir Henry Lunn of Lunn Polly fame. Primarily a car-free resort, with the exception of a few farm vehicles, emergency services and electric taxis, in summer Wengen offers superb hiking routes via Mannlichen to Grindelwald and some of the best views in the Bernese Oberland. An alternative to hiking up to Mannlichen is the cable-car, but this is a cable car with a difference - you can ride on the roof!
Without the scratches and reflective glare of windows getting in the way the cable-car's "balcony" gives stunning views back down to Wengen and Lauterbrunnen.
Wengen and the cliffs lining the Lauterbrunnen valley
Männlichen sits between the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys at a height of 2343m with just an easy 15 minute walk from the top cable-car station and the summit. As with Murren and Wengen winter skiing turns to summer hiking at Männlichen and makes a perfect lunch spot when crossing from valley to valley. Männlichen is also home to another almost uniquely swiss invention. Not content with gondolas, cable-cars, funiculars and cog railways to get you up a mountain they've created a myriad of unusal ways to get down again. From skiing to paragliding and mountain biking to gemmel there seems to be something different on every mountain. Männlichen's entry into the book of weird ways to descend a mountain is the summer gemel. Essentially it's a 3 wheeled, gravity powered, cart with a bicycle brake and no steering. It sounds suicidal but in reality it's so much fun.
Pick up a gemel, helmet, gloves and elbow pads, young going to need them all, and take tyhe winding track down to Grindelwald. The "course record" is a little under 10 minutes, we've heard, but that was by a staff member with intimate knowledge of every bend dip and bump along the route. A more realistic time is between 30 and 45 minutes depending on traffic, both petrol-driven and bovine, and your propensity to be distracted by stunning views or alpine horns.
On leaving Murren that morning we'd dropped our bags at the hotel reception from where they'd be loaded onto a train for delivery to our hotel in Grindelwald, which coincidentally was also our lunch stop after an energy sapping walk up from Grund in 30 degree sunshine - the rain had temporarily gone.
Fortunately the afternoon's offering was away from the glaring sun, well away and shaded in athe narrow confinesof Grindelwald's Glacier Canyon. Here a river tumbles from the mountains down a chasm with 100m high cliffs on either side. A combination of boardwalk and tunnels hug the right hand wall as you follow the river below, pausing along the way to taste meltwater channelled from the Eiger's glacier above, to arrive at a giant blue net suspended from the walls.
The Glacier Gorge walk and suspended net are far from the end of the journey, however, with a twist in the tail before returning to Grindelwald. Returning to the walk entrance a mini-bus was on hand to transport the group back to just beyond the opening of the gorge; but this time at the top. From here a platform projects into the gorge for a heart-stopping canyon swing,
With the group split between two hotels there was a minor delay in finding our luggage, which had gone to the "other" hotel, and a cople of hours to shower and recover from the full day on the go before dinner at the Hotel Belvedere, where half the group were staying. Now I'm no food writer and I rarely mention where I eat on my travels but in this case I'll make an exception. Whether it was heightened senses from the day's activities or the privilege of not paying the bill the food was just amazing. Complemented by local wine it was the perfect end to a long day.....well nearly. Every Wednesday in July and August the town goes car-free and the town centre fills with the sound of live music in the streets until midnight.
Day 3 and a relative lie-in as the rain and cloud rolled through, clearing the valley before breakfast but hugging the slopes higher up as we took the cable-car up to First (Pronounced Fearced). Grindelwald First is the winter playground that transforms in summer with its zip lines, mountain carts and Trottie bikes (scooters for adults) and this year they've a new zip line with a difference. On the First Glider you start by strapping yourself in to the underside of a giant bird-like contraption, lying horizontally with your arms hanging free. From there you get pulled backwards up the hill, through cloud snow and hail in our case, before being released to zip down the wires to where you started.
Unusally for a zip line this one has the bonus of being back where you started rather than lower down the mountain side, leaving this option for after a walk. Passing the conveniently located Restaurant a 2 hour round trip, steep at first but soon levelling out takes you to one of the region's most popular viewpoints at Bachalpsee
With the cloud again rolling in we escaped the elements for lunch but zero visibility wasn't going to stop the crowds queueing at the end of the Tissot Cliff Walk and standing arms outstretched for the obligatory Eiger photo....with barely a sign of the mountain through the cotton wool cloud.
For many the descent from First back to Grindelwald is the highlight of the day, with a combination of zipline, mountain cart and scooter to complete the journet. Reaching 50m above the ground the 800 metre First Flyer propels you downhill on 800 metres of steel cable to Schreckfeld, reaching speeds of over 50 miles an hou
From Schreckfeld the journey continues by Mountain Cart; a mix of go-cart and sledge, starting on access roads shared with service vehicles before heading off-road to deliver you to the cable car at Bort. The three wheeler mountain carts come with a comfortable seat, good tyres, and independent rear left and right brakes along with a helmet. The descent is almost continuous from the start at Schreckfeld and as your confidence grows the sweeping bends allow you to drift, braking on one side to keep the momentum and speed up as you descend towards Grindelwald
At Bort it's time for another transportation change as you swap 3 wheels for two and the Trottibike. Put simply the Trottibike is a child's scooter for adults; Two wheels, a platform just wide enough for your feet, and brakes. Once onboard all illusions of the Trottibike being a child's toy, however, disappear as the road steepens and the speed picks up. A subtle bend of the knees allows you to corner a little faster and soon you're reaching the outskirts of Grindelwald. Here the track joins the road and you weave through parked (and even moving) cars back to the cable car station where your day started.
With just a morning left before starting the return journey to Manchester the Hotel Derby, literally on the railway station platform, was again the perfectly located location to rest our heads. With an early train up to the Jungfraujoch in the morning and little time on the return before a train to Interlaken and on to Zurich, the hotel kindly held our luggage at reception while we grabbed an early breakfast. A little after 7;30am saw us on the iconic train from Grindelwald via Kleine Scheidegg to the Top of Europe.
In a country world-famous for its trains the Kleinne Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch is possibly the ultimate railway. For more than 100 years, the Jungfrau railway has been making its journey to Europe’s highest-altitude railway station at 3454 metres but even before entering the 7km of tunnel that see the railway claw its way through the mountain itself to reach the saddle of the ridge, you're standing among history. The iconic Bellvue des Alpes at Kleinne Scheidegg is one of the few remaining "Grand Hotels" of the Victorian era and the viewing platform for the world's media in the 1920's and 30's as dramas played out on the notorious North Face of the Eiger. To mountaineers it's one of the most historically significant places in the alps.
Once aboard the train a short climb takes you into the heart of the mountain, stopping off at Eismeer (3160m) for a view out onto the Eiger North Face - when the cloud isn't covering everything. Fortunately the Swiss are aware of the cloud issue so, just in case, there's a 3D "virtual viewer" at the top station giving you a view of what should be visible.
On a good day the highlight of the Jungfraujoch is the view from 3454m but at almost £180 for the train it's a lot to pay for a view that may not even be visible. Alongside the viewing platform there's an "Ice Palace" cut into the glacier where even the bricks are made of ice. A tribute to the memories of those who died in the 16 years it took to complete the railway leads you to a series of sculptures and what's claimed to be the fastest lift in Europe, ascending 180m in 27 seconds.
To complete the tourists draw the Jungfraujoch is also one of cholocate manufacturer Lindor's flagship stores with a walk through exhibition of how the famous Lindt brand is made - finishing with a chocolate shop like no other, where you can buy at cheaper prices than evn airport duty-free.
Ice, chocolates and snow behind us it was a rapid dash back down the mountainside by train, with 7 minutes between arriving at Grindelwald and departing again for Interlaken, Berne and Zurich. 3 days in the Jungfrau region over with 4 seasons, 1 mountain summit, the highest chocolate shop and railway station in Europe and countless trains cable-cars. Zip lines, gravity powered carts and aweird bird-like contraption flying through a snow cloud. It's at this point you really appreciate the luxury of Swiss trains before the flight home!