Switzerland by Train: Jungfraujoch and Grindelwald

After 2 days in Montreux, we left to catch the train to Grindelwald. As the days went on, the air grew progressively hotter. It was unusual for Switzerland to be this warm in June and I dreaded the thought of spending our upcoming days in the absence of A/C. But Grindelwald would bring us back to the mountains, and hopefully some relief from the heat would come with it. We asked the front desk at our hotel the best way to get back to the train (other than the steep set of stone steps we hobbled down on our way into town). The woman told us to “follow the blue line on the sidewalk”. We get outside, cross the street, and there it is – a blue line painted on the sidewalk. We followed the line suspiciously like two lost children until it stopped abruptly at the entrance to an elevator. At the top of the elevator ride was another blue line leading us directly to the entrance of the train station. It was possibly the most considerate yet innocent thing I’ve seen in recent memory.

On the train again, and luckily this one was air conditioned (most trains other than regional lines tend to include this coveted amenity). It took a few hours to arrive in Grindelwald, a tiny mountain town with houses built into the hills. Our hotel told us that we would “be fine getting up the hill with a rolling bag”, so we lugged our 40lb suitcase up steeper and steeper stretches of pavement. A set of street signs mark the route to most of the town’s hotels – making it the second time in one day that a Swiss city has built directions into public streets. By the last stretch of hill, I thought I was going to pass out. I ended up pushing my suitcase from behind, straining forward awkwardly against the gravel while locals casually walked their dogs at a 45-degree angle. Needed. A. Golf cart.

The biggest attraction in Grindelwald on paper is Jungfraujoch. It’s painfully expensive and touristy, but it wouldn’t have felt right to leave it out. Jungfraujoch is known as the “Top of Europe”. At an elevation of 3,463m (11,362 ft), it’s also home to the continent’s tallest railway station. To reach the peak, you take a 15-minute gondola ride on the Eiger Express, followed by a high-elevation train (the latter of which is mainly experienced in a tunnel). For a little more $$ you can board early and be guaranteed a seat on the train, but we ended up forgoing our pre-paid train time on our return trip so that we could leave later, and still got a seat (this is allowed). Even with the 50% discount via the Swiss Rail Pass, it’s wildly expensive, so give yourself plenty of time there to make it worth it.

In an effort to pack frugally, we did not prepare for the burst of cold that came at the summit of Jungfraujoch. The peak is covered in thick snow and the wind is fierce and biting when it isn’t obstructed by the side of the observatory. Strongly recommend a windbreaker, warm layers, hiking shoes, and a winter hat. I wandered off the high-elevation train wearing about 50% of these items and feeling dumb (and numb). The observatory contains cafes, a store called “Lindt Chocolate Heaven” (exactly what it sounds like), a series of ice caves, museum-like exhibits, and various outdoor activities including a zipline. We wandered through the interior corridors, which snake around in a disorienting way. The ice caves were a cool and trippy concept, but slightly claustrophobic. Outside along the snowscape was a hiking trail that led to a panoramic view. We only managed to trek around a ½ mile before the altitude started to take our breath away, so we conceded to hovering by the outdoor bar for a mountaintop beer instead. Before heading home, we stood in line for a photo with the Swiss flag planted at the very top. The wind moved over the wave-like fields of snow around us, and for a moment it felt like we were very, very away.

That night we wandered down the steep hill below our hotel and grabbed some dinner in town. Restaurants were tucked into quiet space behind the main street with views of nearby grassy mountains. Our restaurant, “C und M”, had a long wait for a table, but the fluffy homemade lemon & asparagus ravioli made up for it – a rare lightened up meal in a country built on heavy meats and rich cheese. The mountains seemed to tower over the houses scattered along lower hillsides as we polished off our plates on the quiet back patio. Finished with a nightcap at the Avocado Bar along with a game of darts, swatting away flies that gravitated towards my sticky beer can. A friendly patron loaned us his own personal set of darts after the bar’s set literally fall apart mid-throw. I like to think that I’ve been bad at bar darts all these years because of low-quality equipment, and not just crappy hand-eye coordination.

The next day we went on to tackle a second mountain, Grindelwald First. It’s not nearly as famous as Jungfraujoch, but it’s much cheaper. A quick gondola ride took us to the top, which we shared with two 20-something guys who were headed off to backcountry hike and camp up top. They were hungover and proceeded to crack open and polish off two cans of beer during our very short gondola ride. It was 9:13am. It was both impressed and a little nauseated.

After waiting on line for the obligatory “photo on the walkway”, we set off on a 4-mile round trip hike to Lake Bachalpsee.

The elevation was lower at the summit of First, so there was no biting wind or chilly air. The sun beat down on our backs as we walked along sandy paths lined with bright green hills, close enough to divert and wander off for a secluded view of the landscape. Snow-capped peaks ran consistently to my left as I moved down the skinny path. The lake itself was lined with hikers lounging lackadaisically. Even with the crowds it was easy to find a spot or two to be by yourself, a moment to let your shoulders unhunch and your blood pressure settle. Watch for tiny flying bugs disturbing the zen…they’re relentless.

By the evening we were seasoned professionals at braving the steep hills that led from our hotel to town for dinner. Memories of pushing a suitcase uphill in a desperate pool of sweat were fading gradually. Each evening a fresh and cool air settles on top of the mountains, mixing with the sounds of families eating outside of homes wedged into the hills. Bits of light and a hazy blue above the mountains looks both like early morning and late evening. I ease into slowness, the same way as always in this kind of space. It’s a familiar way that the mountains draw me in and ask me to linger. A skinny footpath runs below the wooden balcony in our hotel room, and two late night walkers casually turn into their homes. The lodge had a scent that made me nostalgic, I’m not sure from where. Like aged wood inside a relative’s home.

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