The commune of Interlaken is located around 50 kilometers from the geographical center of Switzerland. As suggested by its name, Interlaken sits between two lakes, Brienz to the east and Thun to the west. It is a pretty place that has justifiably been a tourist destination since the start of the 19th Century.
I first visited Interlaken more than twenty years ago. At the time there were advertising posters around town promoting a rail excursion to the Top of Europe, a tourist complex high up on the south side of the Jungfraujoch. The pictures of the train journey and the destination looked spectacular. I wanted to go. Then I looked at the price. The Jungfraujoch Railway was then and is now one of the most expensive rail journeys in the world by mile. It was out of reach of my meager student budget.
Several years later, on another visit to Interlaken, it was the same story. Though I was out of school and making some money, it was still painfully expensive to get to the Top of Europe.
It wasn’t until another visit in October of 2016 that I finally closed my eyes and handed over the credit card for the tickets. The fare to the top was even more expensive than it was in the 90’s but at least I’d finally see what I’d been missing all these years.
The train tickets we purchased allowed us to take a sequence of three trains from Interlaken up the Jungfraujoch. Sometimes the appeal is the journey; other times it’s about the destination. For the trip up to the Top of Europe it is a bit of both.
The journey to the top started when we boarded a local train in Interlaken at an elevation of 1,857 ft. This train took us to the rail station in the alpine village of Grindelwald at an elevation of 3392 feet.
From Grindelwald the route to the top steepens past the point where a traditional friction-based railways work. Thus the next leg of the journey on the Wengernalp railroad was on a rack railway, a rail system that derives its traction from a toothed rack and pinion mechanism.
On schedule our train left Grindelwald, dropped down to the bottom of a nearby drainage, and then began to rattle its way up the hill to the 6,762 ft-high ski station at Kleine Scheidegg. The Wengernalp Railway connects the villages of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen via Kleine Scheidegg. Tourists heading to the top of Europe arrive at Kleine Scheidegg from either commune and switch trains for the final rack railway segment to the top.
The last leg of the journey, the Jungfrau railway, is an amazing feat of engineering. To reach the top, workers tunneled through the solid rock of the Eiger and Mönch mountains. Indeed, 80% of the 9.3-kilometer long railway is in a tunnel. (The 20% of the railway that is open to the air is near the bottom.) The average slope of the cog railway is 15%. Construction of the railway began in 1896. In 1912, after 16 years, 30 lives lost, and 15 million Swiss Francs the railway was finally completed. It was an incredible expense to build a railway whose primary purpose is tourism.
On the way to the top the Jungfrau railway stops twice. During these five-minute breaks tourists can leave the train to look out through galleries cut through the rock of the mountain. The first pause is at a window cut into the north face of the Eiger. Outside of the window is an expansive view the alpine valley around Grindelwald. Fans of Clint Eastwood might recognize this location; it was used in a scene in the spy movie “The Eiger Sanction.” The second stop gives tourists a bird’s eye view of one of the many glaciers that ring the area’s alpine peaks.
After the second sightseeing stop the railway continues uninterrupted in its tunnel until it reaches its upper extreme. The railway terminates in a subterranean cavern that serves as a railway depot. At 11,332 ft the Jungfrau railway’s upper terminus is the highest railway station in Europe.
From the high station visitors can move out onto the snowfield and explore the high alpine terrain in the area. It is also possible to take the station’s elevators to the Sphinx observatory and the Top of Europe tourist complex, which are built on a peak. Windows and outside decks allow panoramic views of the alpine peaks, snowfields, and the upper portion of the long Aletsch Glacier. (We’ll have to take it on faith that the Aletsch Glacier is visible from the observatory; the glacier was obscured by clouds when we visited.)
Another apparently popular activity at the Top of Europe is shopping, at least for those who still have funds remaining after paying the steep rail fare. The high altitude stores at the Top of Europe sell chocolate, Swiss Army knives, and watches. We are in Switzerland, after all. Even at the Top of Europe you might want to buy something Swiss no matter how distracting the scenery is.