The wind-whipped Swiss flag, and tourists, at the Jungfrau's Plateau vantage point.
Riding the train up to the 11,371-foot Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest point accessible by railway, I fell in love.
I first glimpsed her after departing Grindelwald station, when the cogwheel stopped briefly at Brandegg and she casually ambled past my window. Like the moment Michael Corleone first laid eyes on Apollonia Vitelli in The Godfather, I was struck by "the thunderbolt" at first sight.
It was love at first sight when I laid eyes upon Scarlet on the train up towards the Jungfrau.
Chance encounters in the Swiss Alps
The gods were on my side. Much to my surprise and delight she not only climbed aboard, but sat down in the seat right in front of me. Continuing our ascent, I learned this preternatural beauty’s name was Scarlet.
Despite flawless looks, Scarlet wasn’t snobby at all, friendly to passengers who went gaga over her. Her sweet disposition was positively saintly. In fact, Scarlet was a St. Bernard. Beneath her neck hung a trademark barrel long associated with St. Bernards since the fabled Barry rescued 40 humans in the Swiss Alps in the early 19th century. Alas, the human accompanying Scarlet – a transplanted Californian who swore he’s named Cliff Robertson (but is not the Oscar-winning actor) – confessed her cask carried no rum and was just for show.
Tourists petted, hugged and shook paws with the amiable canine, who had the run of the train. Disembarking at Kleine Scheidegg, Cliff pointed to Hotel Bellevue des Alpes: “That’s where Clint Eastwood shot part of The Eiger Sanction and the crew stayed” while making the movie. This was Cliff and Scarlet’s last stop and before I switched trains to continue my Jungfraujoch jaunt, the St. Bernard stuck her snout into my jacket pocket, sniffing bread, which I happily fed the dog. Before I knew it, the final crumb was devoured and Scarlet was gone with the wind.
Eastwood’s 1975 thriller isn't the only movie shot on location in the Jungfrau region. During the 80-minute ascent I also met New Delhi newlyweds Megha and Sumit Verma, on a motion picture pilgrimage because they’re “both big fans” of the 1995 musical romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, made near the Jungfrau. Sumit, who's seen the Bollywood film "25 times," declared that “after going to the movie we wanted to see this place.”
En route to Jungfraujoch the train wound through the Eiger and Mönch, briefly stopping at the 9,400-foot Eigerwand, behind the Eiger’s North Face, and 10,368-foot Eismeer (or “Sea of Ice,” referring to Grindelwald-Fiescher Glacier) stations, where passengers briefly disembarked to enjoy views from picture windows blasted into the mountains by hardy workers in 1903 and 1905.
A Swiss chocolate shop inside the Jungfrau.
Atop the Jungfrau
A fanciful multimedia exhibition at the journey’s final leg commemorates the centennial of the railway’s 1912 completion to Jungfraujoch. The indoor complexes here also include the Ice Palace, filled with icy handmade sculptures; eateries including Restaurant Bollywood, serving Indian cuisine; reasonably priced souvenir stands; luxury watch boutiques; and an ersatz chocolate factory attached to a Lindt chocolate shop.
But by far what’s best at the Continent’s highest-altitude train station is the snowy splendor of the Top of Europe. The vantage point here, where an observatory has been perched since 1931, reveals the 14-mile-long, 46-square-mile Aletsch Glacier, the Alps’ largest ice sheet and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
If possible, make the train trek on a clear day; otherwise you might only get bird’s-eye views of fog or clouds. On sunny days, the unbroken vista of these snow-clad hulks extends beyond the Bernese Oberland to France and Germany, causing jaws to drop, eyes to pop, minds to boggle.
View from the Sphinx vantage point at the Top of Europe.
Taken by Alpenism
In the 1880 A Tramp Abroad about his (mis)adventures in Switzerland and Germany, Mark Twain explained the “disease” of Alpenism: “There is no opiate like Alpine pedestrianism… the spell… which people find in the Alps, and in no other mountains – that strange, deep, nameless influence, which, once felt, cannot be forgotten… they could find perfect rest and peace nowhere else when… troubled: all frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps; the Great Spirit of the Mountain breathed his own peace upon their hurt minds and sore hearts, and healed them… before the visible throne of God.”
Indeed, the Swiss Alps can cast an enchanting spell. But immersed in this frozen fantasyland – it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit! – aspiring Alpenists needed to keep their wits about them and beware of wintry blasts blowing 42 miles per hour, pelting snow and ice underfoot.
I tried holding rope demarcating the Plateau lookout point so I wouldn’t fall, but couldn’t – freighted by icicles the lines sunk downwards. I painstakingly headed back for the safety and warmth within the mountain, balancing like a tightrope walker, lest the frenzied flurries hurl me overboard.
Interlaken’s five-star Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa.
Time for some R&R
After tackling the Alps, some self-indulgence is in order – and Interlaken’s five star Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa is just the ticket.
2015 is the sesquicentennial of these luxurious lodgings, formed in 1865 when two hotels were united in hotel matrimony, sealed in the 20th century by an arcade that spans the buildings. With its three ballrooms featuring ornately painted ceilings, sweeping staircases, chandeliers, marble hallways, plush curtains and view of the titular Alp, the Victoria-Jungfrau is suffused with enough Old World charm to charm the pants off an archduke.
My sore muscles were soothed at the spa, which features saunas, Jacuzzis, steam baths, Roman-style pool and 10 suites where therapists work their magic. I selected a minty-smelling oil with eucalyptus for a relaxing aromatherapy treatment. Isabella proceeded to give me a full body massage, using hot lava stones, then bending, pressing, stroking and even rubbing my skull, adjusting pressure upon request. I felt like a million Swiss Francs.
I’d worked up an appetite, and with its restored Belle Epoque elegance Jungfrau Brasserie offers a feast for the eyes and palate. A sommelier recommended wines as attentive servers presided over my candlelit table. After a hard day’s hiking, I devoured the main course: delicious duckling with celery puree and rösti, scrumptious Swiss roasted potatoes. The topper was Gute Luise, a mouth-watering pear parfait dish, plus a light, heavenly crème brûlée with goat cheese that melted in my mouth.
I slept the sleep of the dead in a spacious suite, waking for another regal repast at the 15 GaultMillau point-winning Restaurant La Terrasse. Through floor to ceiling windows the village green – a rarity spared development – and (on clear days) the Jungfrau can be seen from this classy dining room. The breakfast, a bacchanalian buffet, offered fruits, bircher muesli, omelettes, cheeses, granola, etc.
Well fortified, I strolled through the town of Interlaken, so-called because it’s between two scenic lakes, Brienz and Thun. The village is a melange of the medieval and the touristy. Across a bridge stood Unterseen, where the Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, scenes of the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers were shot.
Because Switzerland was neutral during WWII, much of its traditional architecture survived war’s ravages. It remains a peaceful land. Strolling along a promenade beside Aare River, where swans and ducks dived, the serenity was palpable.
This was my third trip to the Top of Europe, but I know the Jungfrau will cast its Alpine spell on me again.