The Jungfrau region of Switzerland is a winter wonderland of majesty and icy activities
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 27, 2011
GRINDELWALD, SWITZERLAND » It was the first time since moving to warmer climates a third of a century ago that this "native" New Yorker had braved wintertime. For a moment, I deluded myself into believing that snow — not age — was responsible for the flecks of white in my mustache. I had come to Switzerland to rediscover winter and relive a childhood joy I had relished at New York's Forest Park: the thrill of sledding.
My destination was the Jungfrau region of central Switzerland, a snowy wonderland dominated by three towering peaks: Eiger, elevation 12,026 feet; Mōnch, 13,475 feet; and Jungfrau, 13,642 feet.
From Zūrich's busy Hauptbahnhof (main station), I rode the rails 120 miles north to central Switzerland, passing Interlaken in the Bern district and arriving at Grindelwald's two-track terminal. At Hotel Belvedere the picture window in my spacious room framed a jaw-dropping view of the Eiger, where Clint Eastwood set his 1975 thriller "The Eiger Sanction."
IF YOU GO …
» Jungfrau Region info: www.myjungfrau.ch
» Hotel Belvedere: www.belvederegrindelwald.ch; call 41-33-888-99-99
» Schilthorn/Piz Gloria: www.schilthorn.ch/en
» Tobogganing: www.grindelwaldbus.ch/30_eng_Sledging.html
» Air Berlin: www.airberlin.com; 866-266-5588
» Swiss International Air Lines: www.swiss.com; 877-FLY SWISS
The mountain also starred in the 2008 German movie "North Face," about Alpinists attempting to conquer the dangerous Eiger. But I hadn't crossed the planet to rappel the Eiger with ice axe, rope and hobnailed boots. I went the easy way: by train.
The cog railway Jungfraubahn, an engineering marvel that took 16 years to complete in 1912, is one of the planet's most exquisite short train jaunts. When the locomotive pulled out of Grindelwald, it was packed as tight as Manhattan's rush-hour subway, but the commuters wore goggles, helmets and carried ski, snowboard and toboggan gear. Winter scenery unfolded outside large windows: ski lifts, skiers, tobogganers, parasailers soaring amid peaks, spectral trees with bare, ice-coated branches. The skis of downhill racers created squiggles down the mountainside.
At Kleine Scheidegg I switched trains, continuing on a cogwheel railway ascent of the Jungfrau. We made brief stops at Eigerwand and Eismeer ("sea of ice") where glass-enclosed lookout points are carved into the rock.
Finally, we reached the "Top of Europe" — the continent's highest point accessible via railway — disembarking at Jungfraujoch. "'Joch' in 'Jungfraujoch' means a passage in the mountains," said our guide Andrea Hess. "In the case of Jungfraujoch, it's a comparatively small rock between the two bigger mountains, Jungfrau and Mōnch."
The Top of Europe is touristy, with souvenir stands and Europe's highest post office. Mailing postcards with the Jungfrau postmark is a popular activity for visitors.
An elevator inside the summit transported me to the Sphinx Observatory, a weather observation station and an 11,760-foot-high viewing platform that offers extraordinary views.
At the Sphinx, a UNESCO World Heritage site, metallic maps surround the vantage point detailing what one sees. On a crystal-clear day a 360-degree view revealed the nearby 14-mile-long Aletsch Glacier — the Alps' largest glacier, covering 74 square miles — the distant Vosges Mountains in France and Germany's Black Forest.
Descending by elevator, I walked through tunnels to the Ice Palace. Carved out of Aletsch Glacier's interior, aglow with blue light are kitschy, icy arctic sculptures: polar bears, penguins, igloos. Beyond the Ice Palace, hikers emerging atop Jungfraujoch are rewarded with resplendent views of the Alps.
The Top of Europe enchants visitors the way Hawaii does. Mark Twain, who went to Switzerland after he left Hawaii, noted there's "no opiate like Alpine pedestrianism. … 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; they could not think base thoughts or do mean and sordid things here, before the visible throne of God."
From this heavenly spot, I headed down to earth via Jungfraubahn. Two hours later I was at Grindelwald's indoor Sports Center where Belvedere owner Urs Hauser instructed guests to the Olympic sport of curling.
The object is to slide a 44-pound granite stone across an icy sheet toward the "house," a circular target. Broom-wielding sweepers brush the ice in front of the stone, smoothing its trajectory. More a game of skill than strength, curling requires precision to propel stones into the house or knock opponents' stones out of it. We divided into teams to give it a try. Initially I couldn't reach the target, but eventually I succeeded, feeling like an Olympian when my side won, 2-1.
The following morning I commuted by train to Lauterbrunnen village and rode a cable car 5,361 feet up to Mūrren, the Bernese Oberland's highest ski resort. I strolled through the quiet village — no autos allowed — and caught another cable car to the 9,748- foot Schilthorn.
The 1969 film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was shot here. Fans will remember the film as the only Bond movie in which the superspy was played by Australian actor George Lazenby, who lived on Oahu.
In the film, Bond villain Ernst Blofeld's (Telly Savalas) lair was portrayed by Piz Gloria, a circular rotating restaurant where I lunched on rōsti (roasted potatoes) with vegetables and scrumptious berry pie. Like 007, the Swiss waiters wear holsters, but instead of Berettas they pack purses holding receipt printers. Piz Gloria's shop sells Bond tchotchkes and exhibits James Bond memorabilia and film clips.
Belvedere's Hauser said that with its summit panorama Piz Gloria offers Switzerland's best Alpine view — weather permitting. But the day I was there, visitors could see only a 360-degree view of fog.
Back at the Belvedere it was "Grindelwald evening." The pianist was pre-empted by an accordion player, and the usual six-course dinner menus were replaced by a buffet serving Swiss delicacies: leg of ham, pork knuckle, beef tongue, calf's kidneys, braised breast of veal, creamed Savoy cabbage, hot berries, vanilla ice cream, apple tartlets, cinnamon sauce and more.
Hauser, whose family has owned the Belvedere since 1907, presided over the Alpine luau, which was as deliciously filling as the hotel's breakfast buffets with Bircher muesli, fruits, croissants and omelets.
Every year, 1.8 million visitors take in the views from Jungfrau, so protecting its beauty is paramount, Hauser said.
"You can do it well if you combine growth, tourism and environment," said the hotelier.
"This is one of the most spectacular mountainous areas in the world, and if we don't preserve it, it's like cutting off the branch we're sitting on."
This year the Belvedere became Switzerland's first hotel to win the Travelife Gold Sustainability in Tourism eco-award.
The four-star establishment also features a stellar wellness center providing massages, saunas, bracing cold showers, a large indoor pool and Jacuzzi, connected by a passageway lined with plastic flaps to an outdoor spa. Overcoming trepidation, I walked out under the starry Swiss sky and, with snowflakes melting on my cheeks, immersed myself in steamy water. It was invigorating and good preparation for my journey's ultimate challenge.
The next morning I was finally ready to tackle the slopes for the first time since small-kid days. I rode a crowded bus 5,900 feet up narrow roads to Bussalp. There was only one way back to Grindelwald: by toboggan.
I rented a contraption consisting of canvas stretched over a metal frame with wooden runners, but no steering mechanism. Sitting down, I grasped a rope tied to the runners and shoved off, careening wildly downhill.
Heels digging into the snow acted as brakes; tilting my body left or right influenced the toboggan's direction. Despite the rudimentary steering, I cruised through the winter wonderland without wiping out, reliving long-forgotten boyhood thrills. Tobogganing is good fun — like boogie-boarding on land.
I arrived safely in the snowy village, and for an instant felt like that fearless lad who once sledded with his friends Danny, Scotty and Skunky at Forest Park.
I was happily wearing a borrowed winter coat and a Grindelwald grin.