Wednesday 19 June 2019

I’ve Been Expecting You, Mr Bond

Alpine horn for the tourists at Schilthorn: cut-out of James
Bond disguised as Sir Hilary Bray lurks behind!

A week by train in the Bernese Oberland

Ever since our first visit to the Alps five years ago we have wanted to return to visit some places we had not then had time to see. I had begun to think about spending a week at, say, Interlaken, which would enable us to trip out to The Schilthorn and Jungfraujoch plus any other places that might come to mind, and when I opened my latest Great Rail Journeys catalogue I saw the Inclusive Jungfrau tour which provided all that we needed and more, with seven nights in Grindelwald (and, bonus, a night in Colmar on the way there, a place we had wanted to revisit after a short stop there on a previous trip). A visit to Jungfraujoch was included, as well as visits to Röthorn and Schynige Platte, and there were two free days on one of which we could arrange to visit Schilthorn, so we simply booked the Great Rail Journeys package, with a night in London before departure, and waited for the date to come!

It was an early start from London St Pancras International so we did not have breakfast at our hotel but went straight to meet our tour manager Stephen at the Great Rail Journeys office at the station. Once through check-in we had coffee while we waited for our train to Paris, and then enjoyed the light breakfast served on the train (as usual we were travelling Standard Premier Class, with a light meal included). There was supposed to be a coach transfer from Paris Nord to Paris Est but it was a tight connection and an easy walk so Stephen decided it would be quicker simply to walk between the stations rather than find the coach, load the luggage, struggle through traffic and unload the luggage again, so we had a little exercise between stations in Paris before continuing by TGV to Colmar.

At Colmar the weather was almost as hot and sunny as on our previous visit, but we had both the evening and the following morning to enjoy this delightful little city, well worth seeing. And I am pleased to say that the Grand Hotel Bristol, conveniently opposite the station, was much improved on our previous visit.

We left Colmar earlier than planned so as to travel on a TGV straight through to Basel where we changed trains for Interlaken. Because we had started early we had a couple of hours at Basel and as well as enjoying coffee under the trees at a pleasant pavement café also had a walk though the city centre to a river bridge, a bakery supplying our needs for lunch.

From Basel we took a train through to Interlaken where we connected to a mountain railway train to Grindelwald, at the foot of the Eiger. We stayed with the rest of the group (forty including the manager, the biggest group with which we’d ever travelled) at the Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof, and I would recommend it to anyone. Our room was huge and stylish, reminiscent of a James Bond film set! We had a view of the Eiger through our patio window, a walk-in wardrobe, double bath (!) and separate shower and a control panel for lighting and window shutter that took a few minutes to learn! We were going to be there for a week so we unpacked and made ourselves at home.

Unlike any previous Great Rail Journeys tour we had done, we were supplied with a packed lunch each day by the hotel, so days out did not have to include a search for lunch; and after dinner, sleep and breakfast we picked up our little paper carrier bags and made our way through the village centre to the cable car station for first exciting excursion, to Grindelwald First. For me this was a bit of a test run: the planned trip to Schilthorn would involve several cable cars, many of them very high above the ground and very long, so this little trip to First would reveal how comfortable I would be with cable car travel. Fortunately it was fine, although in terms of the experience itself it was disappointing that there was dense fog - or cloud if you prefer - nearly all the way up. There was not a lot to see from the peak, either, but we did do the Cliff Walk around it even though the scenery was nowhere to be seen, and we enjoyed coffee before travelling back down to the village, eating our lunch in the cable car on the way. In the afternoon we discovered the local church and the local museum and browsed around these. Dinner at the hotel and bed, ready for the first Big Day tomorrow!

Approaching Schilthorn by cable car
"Tomorrow" was Day 4, Friday, the first of two free days, and we had planned that if the weather was suitable we would visit Schilthorn, one of the highest peaks in the region and from which great views could be had (in suitable weather) and which appeared as "Piz Gloria" in the James Bond film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." After taking invaluable advice from our Tour Manager we set off for Grindelwald station and bought our travel tickets for the day, out via Kleine Scheidegg and Stechelberg and return via Mürren and the short route via Zweilütschinen. All we needed was three tickets, all of which we were able to buy at the station using our half-fare passes supplied as part of our holiday package.

The view from the terrace
We set off on the next train to Kleine Scheidegg and changed trains there for Lauterbrunnen. We had been this way five years ago in winter and it was interesting to see it in June: not much different, really! Once we had climbed out of the valley from Grindelwald there was still plenty of snow until we descended the other side through Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, where we caught the connecting bus to the cable car terminal at Stechelberg. Here we started the long climb to Schilthorn. There were three changes of cable car on the way and each time we just had a few minutes walk, with a huge crowd of other people, and then continued onto the next stage. One change was at Mürren where would be leaving the cable car on our way back. The views on the climb were great, but nothing compared with what awaited us at the top. From Schilthorn it seemed that we could see most of Switzerland! We could certainly see the Jura mountains in the northwest (which we had visited twice on other occasions), and Mont Blanc in France to the southwest, and the huge stretch of the midlands plain looking north and east. The great bulk of the Eiger and Jungfrau hid the southeast from our view. It was said that you could see the Matterhorn from here but that did elude me. It was a very slightly misty day, but not far from perfect for the panoramic view.

Looking down on the 007 walk of discovery - a bit
snowbound for us
We ventured into the revolving restaurant which had been the set for Blofeld's base in the film, but we did not eat there, having our packed lunch from the hotel. Beneath was a number of 007-related displays which we visited but which were not the reason for our visit - although without the finance from the film the restaurant might never have been completed and the cable cars would not have survived so we would never have been able to visit at all! I am a bit of a fan of the film, actually, as it is one of those which fairly closely follows the book (apart from having Bond drive an Aston Martin instead of his Bentley).

Going back down we were bogged down in the crowds and twice had to wait half-an-hour for cable cars, but this cannot be helped if we visit a popular place on one of the the few days with good weather! We left the cable car at Mürren and walked through this cliff-top village to the rail station at the other end. On the way we visited a gift shop where we bought our souvenir (a gift for ourselves!) for the holiday, a fondue set - quite reasonable prices, unusual for Swiss resorts. We boarded the train and travelled to the other end of the line at Grutschalp where a waiting cable car took us down the cliff to Lauterbrunnen. From there we returned to Grindelwald by the shortest rail route for a shower, change of clothes and dinner with the rest of the group. I was hailed by one of the men, "I've been expecting you, Mr Bond:" four of the group had been behind us in the cable car queue on the way down, but we had not spotted them!

The train stops at a viewpoint on its way up
through the Eiger
On the Saturday was the inclusive trip to Jungfraujoch on the famous Jungfrau railway which actually climbs up through the Mönch and (the north face of!) the Eiger, to the highest railway station in Europe. Again there were lots of people (and we actually met a young couple who had been beside us in a cable-car queue the day before!) but this time we had group reservations on the trains so there was no problem with travel. We began with the train to Kleine Scheidegg again and this time crossed to the Jungfraujoch platform to the dedicated group travel area from where we were escorted to our carriage. Only the first part of the journey is in the open air, and all of it climbs steeply; soon were we in the tunnel and then the train stopped at an intermediate station for five minutes, the sole purpose of which was for us all to leave the train and look out through windows cut into the rock of the mountainside. (If you look at the north face when the sun is low and shining in an appropriate direction you can see the light glinting off these windows).

The view from the terrace of the
High Alpine Research Station
Back on the train we climbed up to the underground station at the "Top of Europe" and made our way through the pedestrian tunnels into a large sunlit space with a gift shop, coffee bar and the start of a suggested tour through all that the Jungfraujoch had to offer. Unfortunately a panorama viewpoint was closed for improvement work (indeed the station was full of contractor's plant as well, so we did not have the best introduction as we left our train, but there is not much space up there!). There were active things to do outside, but for me the main point was the view across Switzerland once again. We tried to see the Schilthorn where we had been the previous day, but cloud kept intervening and we never did see it. The view down over the Aletsch Glacier, still covered in snow, was breathtaking.

Aletsch Glacier
Speaking of which, we had to move slowly and carefully at these altitudes with thin air! No rushing about possible. There was an "ice palace" with sculptures made of ice - incredibly difficult to photograph - and much else to occupy our time until it was time to gather and make our way slowly to our train back down. Only in Switzerland have I ever experienced altitude ear-popping on a slow train!

From Kleine Scheidegg we went back to Grindelwald and dinner. Day 5 had come to an end, and with it the sunny weather. The rest of our time was to be murky and damp, but still exciting and rewarding.

The locomotives on the Brienz-Rothorn line are angled to
keep their boilers horizontal on the steep gradient
Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost and was a public holiday along with the Monday after it, but the tourist attractions were still open, although many shops were closed. Yet another mountain ascent awaited us, although this time the train itself was part of the attraction, for it was steam-powered and climber steeply up from its terminus opposite the main station at Brienz to the top of the Rothorn. We had to travel to Brienz via a change of train at Interlaken, following the coast of Lake Brienz. After a short wait we took our reserved seats on the Brienz-Rothorn train and were pushed up the steep gradient by a powerful little locomotive that made a great deal of noise with each exhaust blast. I had experienced nothing quite like it in all my years of train travel (going back to the days when steam trains were normal).

Again we climbed up to where there was still snow. The snow was staying longer this year than usual and many normally-open walking routes were still closed - this is June - and some mountain railways only started operation this week. From the peak we could look down on the line and see other little trains making this way up and down. It was cold and damp and many of us went down on an earlier train than the one booked because walking was limited and the views restricted by the mist and rain.

We were among the "advance party" on an early train back and so had an hour to spare in Brienz, where we walked along the promenade on the lakeside, then up through the town and past the shops - grateful that it was a Sunday and we could not spend any money! Amazingly both the greengrocer and a hardware shop had wares on display outside with no worry about theft. This is an amazingly honest part of the world. The town was preparing for a yodelling festival, but we would be long gone before it began.

The day out ended with a cruise along Lake Brienz from the mooring by the rail station in the town where we met those who had stayed the course at the mountain-top. Our Tour Manager had been given a free upgrade to First Class for us all on the lake steamer, and so we sat on the upper deck (under cover!) and enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine - pushing the boat out, as they say, at Swiss prices - as we travelled in style back to Interlaken Ost for the train home to Grindelwald. It had been a really great day out in spite of the cold and rain at the mountain-top. I would not have wanted to miss the train ride up there nor the views when we could see them, and it was not so cold or wet down by the lake.

The train at its mountain terminus
 On the Monday came our last mountain railway of the holiday. I don't think I've ever travelled on so many, or such odd, railways in one holiday before. We began by travelling towards Interlaken again but this time leaving the train at Wilderswil, just outside Interlaken, to take the mountain railway to Schynige Platte. Like the train to Rothorn, this one had trains of just two coaches pushed up the hill by a locomotive in the rear, but this time they were electric locomotives and considerably quieter. They were antiques nonetheless and the ride was amazing.
The Alpine Garden
Schynige Platte is worth visiting for itself, as well as for the views from the top. We could only see well for the first ten minutes after leaving the train, and this was the first time I had been able to study the territory in which we had been staying for a week and which I had visited five year before on a day trip. We could see the valleys of the two branches of the river which come together at Zweilütschinen, each with a high cliff along each side. On the high plain between them sat Kleine Scheidegg and Manlichen and on the west clifftop was Mürren; beyond the cliffs on either side and in the distance beyond the plain were the enormous mountains that surround the whole Jungfrau region which we had been exploring on this fantastic holiday.

Looking back up the valley
There are many walks available from the station around the mountain top, but again with little to see and a cold rain we decided not to wander far and spent our time looking at the Alpine Garden and its little exhibition before going back down on an earlier train and then travelling back to Grindelwald the long way round via Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Scheidegg, back in time for dinner. It was so misty that at Kleine Scheidegg as we changed trains we could not see the Eiger!

A Neuchâtelois farmhouse at Freilichtmuseum Ballenberg

The next day, Tuesday, was our last complete day in Switzerland and was a free day. We had no agenda for the day when we set off from England, but while in Brienz we had found out about an open-air museum not far away at Ballenberg which had a collection of about a hundred historic buildings re-erected there from various parts of the country when their removal was required. The two areas we are most interested in, Neuchâtel and and Graubünden Cantons, were not well represented, but it still sounded like and interesting place to visit and so in the morning we set off once more for Grindelwald station. Again, they were able to sell us tickets for the whole day, including vouchers for entry to the museum at a reduced price for train travellers; the travel tickets included the bus from Brienz to Ballenberg and back and well as the train to Brienz via the change at Interlaken Ost. It is all so much simpler in Switzerland than at home: even though a variety of public and private bodies provide the transport it operates as one system so changing to bus or cable car is exactly like changing trains, with through tickets available.

Although a free day, the hotel still provided the packed lunch again and we ate ours during our time at the museum, which was like a long country walk punctuated by visiting the old buildings, some of which were just as they had come, some restored extensively, and some re-purposed to display artefacts or bygone ways of life, crafts etc.. The rain came and went, but we had a great day before taking the bus back to Brienz then the trains "home" in time to shower and change before our last dinner at the hotel. Back to our splendid room to pack ready for the morning's (fairly) early start, for we were returning to London in one day.

International trains at Paris Nord
LNER "Azuma" at London Kings Cross
The trip back via Paris went well apart from a twenty-minute delay to our Eurostar to London: it came in late and left late, and the carriage numbers were wrong, too, so staff had to redirect us to the right part of the train - chaos but once aboard it was a good trip with the usual light meal. We had booked a hotel room in London for the night just in case we were late and could not get the last train to connect for Stamford at Peterborough, but on reflection it would have been cheaper to take a taxi from Peterborough than to stay overnight in London! However, staying did mean that we had an opportunity to visit family in London for a good part of the day before travelling home at our own convenience, having the flexible tickets which Great Rail Journeys had provided for us. Icing on the cake was that our train to Peterborough was one of LNER's new class 800 "Azuma" sets which it was nice to try; our first class 800 ride.