KINGDOM OF THE DRAGONS
Since the late 1600s, for the young elite of Britain and northern Europe, the “Grand Tour” - little more than an early form of overlanding - had become a rite of passage. The oft travelled itinerary included such highlights as Paris and Vienna, Rome and Berlin. Along the way, the Alpine passes had to be endured in order to gain access to the fleshpots of Italy, otherwise the mountains of western Europe were largely avoided, for they were cold and hostile, these glacial wastelands reputed to be the kingdom of dragons.
Though, by the 1800s attitudes had begun to change. For a start, western Europe’s highest mountain, the Mont Blanc, had been conquered in 1786. And, curiously, not a single dragon had been found there. It was a moment of enlightenment. And there was more to come. Through the writings of the mountaineers this wondrous, mythical world gradually revealed itself, serving to pique the minds of the Romantics; painters, poets and writers flocked to the Alps. It was the dawning of a new era in tourism.
In the summer of 1802, during a lull in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the British painter JMW Turner’s Alpine tour brought him to the village of Grindelwald, in the Swiss Bernese Overland. Whilst there, he hiked the Lütschental and crossed the Grosse Scheidegg to the Reichenbach Falls. He avoided the high peaks, happy leaving them to those wild-eyed fellows sporting their fulsome breeches, stout leather boots and coils of hemp. The high mountains were out of reach for Turner and his brushes, though had he arrived in Grindelwald one hundred and ten years later his portrayal of the mountain scenery may have looked quite different.
Among the unusual railway journeys of the world, including the Old Patagonian Express, El Tren De Las Nubes, The Overland and the Trans-Siberia, to name but a few, the Jungfrau Railway is certainly up there amongst the strangest. It has always seemed quite extraordinary that you can board a train in London, pass beneath the sea, venture half way across Europe and, after making a few changes en route, alight at the Jungfraujoch station, a mere 3,454 metres altitude. And that’s not the oddest part of this journey. Most trains deliver the traveller to a bustling city, at least a medium-sized town. At the Jungfraujoch railway terminus you arrive at a place not dissimilar to the polar wastes of Antarctica.
To reach these giddy heights, the Jungfrau Railway bores through one of the most infamous mountains in Europe: the Eiger. Of course, the Eiger is just an ordinary mountain - it’s cold and pointy and very painful if you fall off it. However, what’s special about this one is its north face. In recent history, the north face of the Eiger, or Nordwand, has become a storybook, a stage on which tragedy and heroism have been the principle themes. For the alpinist, each section of the main climbing route is like a chapter from a grim tale. Such names as The Shattered Pillar, The Death Bivouac, The Brittle Crack, The Traverse of the Gods and the The Spider accompany the climber’s ascent, until the myth of this place is almost as overwhelming as the rime coating its surface. The Eiger north face was one of the last “problems” facing climbers of the early twentieth century. Not until 1938 was it finally overcome.
So what’s it all about, this Jungfrau Railway? Having ascended the short but stunning Lütschental Valley and parked the camper, the traveller boards the Berner Overland-Bahn (“BOB” for short) at Grindelwald station. The cog-wheel railway winds up through the meadows to Kleine Scheidegg, where a change of train transports you to the Jungfraujoch station.
Railway fever had firmly taken grip by the end of the nineteenth century and absolutely no one scoffed at the idea of driving a train to the summit of a mountain. In fact, it made perfect sense. Promoted by Zurich industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller, for ten years more than two hundred labourers, mainly of Italian origin, lived and toiled in the most arduous conditions. Thirty workers lost their lives; on one occasion thirty thousand kilograms of dynamite accidentally exploded, an event heard as far away as the Black Forest in Germany. Despite these setbacks, the Jungfraujoch station was opened in 1912.
When I made the journey, I was joined on the train in Kleine Scheidegg by crowds of Asians and North Americans, no doubt all of them enjoying a contemporary version of the Grand Tour. Having entered the tunnel leading into the Eiger it didn't take long before that feeling of altitude compression takes hold. Many of the passengers were soon yawning, whilst others had flopped asleep in their seats; not even our stop at the viewing point in the Eigerwand station roused them. After a five minute break the train rumbled upward, taking a second break in the journey at the Eismeer station, to view the “Sea of Ice” beyond the gallery windows, before depositing us at the highest railway station in Europe.
At the top, despite the glare of the sun, the air was sharp and thin and it was necessary to move a little slower than usual. There were various attractions to occupy the tourists. Aside from the bars and restaurants there was an ice grotto, a chocolate factory and the Sphinx Observatory. It was also possible to hire a sledge or whizz down a zip line.
As hunting for dragons was out of the question, I’d gone up the mountain for the simple pleasure of walking and absorbing the view on such a beautiful day. I set out on the forty-minute hike to the Mönchsjoch hut, a steady gain in altitude of only some two hundred metres and yet it didn’t take long before I was gasping for oxygen. Stopping to catch my breath I marvelled at the view of the Aletsch glacier; the sea of snow and peaks seemingly unfurled for ever.
At last, I’d left the crowds behind, enabling the silence to prevail; just me and the mountains. Such bliss. If only I knew how to paint. JMW Turner once told his friend Joseph Farington how, ‘ … the trees in Switzerland are bad for the painter … ’
Well, I can assure him, he would have faced no such challenges up here.