ANURAG MALLICK explores the Swiss tourism haven of Interlaken by e-bike, boat and horse carriages before taking the Alpine Railway to the top of Europe
‘We serve beer colder than your ex-girlfriend,’ announced a pub on Höheweg, Interlaken’s main street – a tourist highway lined with restaurants, casinos, Victorinox centres, Eiger adventure stores, Swiss watch shops and catchy signs. ‘A dark chocolate a day keeps the doctor away,’ said Swiss Chocolate Chalet, selling chocolates from Ballenberg. Miranda advertised itself as the ‘last sex shop before the Jungfrau’. The charming town of Interlaken, ‘the area between two lakes’, was a tourist hotspot named after the lakeside towns of Thun and Brienz.
My hotel Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel was bang in the middle of all the action. At the pretty flowerbeds of Casino Kursaal nearby, many a Bollywood song had been shot. Indian cinema’s love affair with Switzerland started in 1964 with Raj Kapoor and Vyjayanthimala in Sangam and has lasted more than a Bollywood relationship these days.
Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha’s Silsila, Rishi Kapoor and Sridevi’s Chandni to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, were all filmed in scenic Switzerland. Yash Chopra’s immense contribution to tourism in Switzerland earned him the honour as Ambassador for Interlaken. A Jungfrau Railway train is named after him and Lauenen Lake where he shot many film scenes is called Chopra Lake. For cinema buffs, Swiss Tourism even runs special Bollywood location tours in Gstaad-Saanenland.
A red mini train offered a sightseeing tour of the city while some enjoyed horse carriage rides. A great way to explore Interlaken is a guided e-bike tour with Flying Wheels. Led by our guide Miriam, our group pedaled across the Aare River, which flows from Lake Thun to Lake Brienz, connected by a tongue of land called Bödelli.
Since the Middle Ages, bridges over the river’s various arms were the only way of getting to Jungfrau. After a monastery came up here in 1133, a mill and bathhouses sprung up and the place was called Aarmühle (Mill on the Aare). Cycling past old buildings, we continued upriver to the old city of Unterseen. We took photos of the Gothic tower and old city walls, before leaving the urban settlement for the countryside to a farm to taste some fresh cheese.
Dinner was a typical Swiss feast at Restaurant Laterne with rösti (pan fried grated potatoes) and raclette (roasted cheese), originally peasant staples. In the old days, Swiss herdsmen often carried cheese while moving cows to higher pastures. At night they softened the cheese by the campfire before ‘scraping’ (racler in French) it onto their bread or plate. Usually served with pickled onions and gherkins, raclette goes best with wine or warm drinks. Locals often warn against drinking cold beverages so that the cheese doesn’t harden in the stomach and cause indigestion.
The next morning, we were off to Interlaken Ost to catch the Wengernalp Railway for a ride on the century old Alpine train network. Past Wilderswil, the Schwarze (Black) Lütschine flowing from Grindelwald and the Weisse (White) Lütschine from Lauterbrunnen Valley joined at Zweilütschinen, where the ‘two Lütschine’ meet. According to a local joke between villagers settled on the two rivers, folks on the Weisse Lütschine claimed the others were so dirty it turned the river black while those on the Schwarze Lütschine said the other tributary remained perfectly white because they never washed!
Green pastures turned to flecks of snow as reached Grindelwald. The cheese platter and wine at Hotel Kreuz was perfect for the cold clime as we warmed up with fondue – rustic country bread dunked into melted cheese infused with wine and garlic. It was a short walk to the cable car station for a ride up to First (7,113 ft) to experience First Flyer, the only such zipline installation in Europe. In 45 seconds we zipped down 800 m to Schreckfeld at a maximum speed of 84 km/hr before taking the sedate cable car back to Grindelwald.
From Grindelwald, skiers made a beeline for Kleine Scheidegg (6760 ft), a short ride through tunnels past magnificent slopes. With a trio of majestic peaks, the Mönch (13,474 ft), Eiger (13,020 ft) and Jungfrau (13,642 ft), there’s no better backdrop for skiing or snowboarding. We hopped across to Restaurant Bahnof for sausage soup, röstizza (pizza with rösti topping) and crisp Rugenbräu lager. The ride back to Interlaken went via Wengen and Lauterbrunnen, the Valley of Waterfalls. The sight of Trummelbach Falls plummeting in a misty spray from a rocky cliff with the church steeple in the foreground is unforgettable. Dinner was a light affair with wasabi-risotto and giant shrimps in chili oil at Restaurant Wineart.
The next day, our Jungfrau railways guide Elena Monakhova met us for our ride to the Top of Europe. In 1893, inspired by the Wengernalp Railway’s steam locomotives that had reached Kleine Scheidegg, Zürich businessman Adolf Guyer-Zeller hit upon an audacious plan. As he sat in Mürren, he scribbled a new train route on a napkin that burrowed through the Eiger and Mönch mountains right up to Jungfraujoch. It was to change the face of tourism in the region.
After Kleine Scheidegg we rode past yellow and red ski lifts into Jungfrau Tunnel. Crossing Eigergletscher (7612 ft), the train stopped for 5 minutes at Eigerwand (9400 ft) with an excellent lookout through a glass window. The 9km journey past Eismeer (10,360 ft) culminated at Europe’s highest station Jungfraujoch (11,333 ft), a project that took 16 years and many lives to complete. Plaques were erected in memory of workers who died on the job. The fact that this superhuman feat was achieved a century ago was even more commendable.
Jungfraujoch was a maze of delights – Alpine Sensation, Aletschgletscher and tunnels of ice leading to Eisplast (Ice Palace). Tourists posed against delicate sculptures of polar bears, eagles, Sherlock Holmes with his trademark pipe and deerstalker cap and Scrat, the acorn-loving sabre-toothed squirrel from Ice Age!
Outdoor sights like Plateau and Jungfrau Panorama, a 360-degree experience of the snowscapes, were breathtaking. On 15 August 2009, Kapil Dev joined British and Indian legends for a cricket match at Jungfraujoch on an artificial pitch in a 100m long, 70m wide snowfield. Last year, Swiss tennis ace and Lindt ambassador Roger Federer played a tennis match at Aletsch Glacier overlooking the Sphinx to commemorate the opening of Lindt’s new store Chocolate Heaven.
A lift deposited us at the Sphinx Observatory (11,760 ft), the highest structure in Europe. Perched on snowy crags against a backdrop of peaks and glaciers, the domed astronomical station has featured in several movies – from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows to Bond flick On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Krrish 3 and The Hero. After the customary selfie by the fluttering Swiss flag, we headed back to the Berghaus to pick up memorabilia and dine at Crystal, touted as Europe’s highest restaurant.
We reluctantly caught our train to Interlaken but just as the high was wearing off, the bus dropped us at Bönigen for another shot of adrenalin. After exhilarating twists and turns, the hour-long jet boat ride on Lake Brienz took us close to Giessbach Falls with the cliffside Grandhotel Giessbach playing mute witness to our antics.
By evening, we were back at the Victoria Jungfrau to watch paragliders land on the grassy lawns of Höhematte. The peak dazzled in the fading light before being enveloped in a blanket of clouds. Interlaken paused to catch its breath for the night…
Interlaken is 2 hr 15 min by train from Zürich International Airport. Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min). www.SwissTravelSystem.com
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes like Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch.
A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch
Where to Stay
The centrally located Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel is the best place to stay in town (doubles CHF 438-588) www.victoria-jungfrau.ch. Hotel Interlaken (CHF 224-325) www.hotelinterlaken.ch, City Hotel Oberland www.city-oberland.ch (CHF 230-254) and Metropole Hotel (CHF 166-191) www.metropole-interlaken.ch are good city hotels besides B&Bs and chalet-style Typically Swiss Hotels.
What to Do
There’s lots to do for adventure lovers. Take an e-bike tour www.flyingwheels.ch, enjoy a jet boat ride in Lake Brienz www.jetboat.ch, learn skiing www.wyss-sport.ch, go tandem paragliding www.flystar.ch or www.swiss-paragliding.ch and skydive from 14,000 ft. www.skydiveinterlaken.ch
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.