Bern - I’ve just met a virgin, a monk and an ogre. True story.
“Many many years ago, there was once a monastery on Jungfrau peak (translated as The Virgin) where all the women would stay,” Rolf Wegmueller, the managing director for Wengen tourism in Switzerland, tells me.
“On the other side, on top of the Eiger peak (translated as the Ogre) was another monastery where all the men would stay.”
The purpose of the peak called Monch (or Monk) right between them? To prevent the sexes from making it to the other camp.
Welcome to the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, which together make up the Bernese Alps. The Eiger stands at 3 970m and extends to the Monch at 4 107m and to the Jungfrau at 4 158m.
The fabled story is one the Swiss know well, but that doesn’t help me as I’m standing almost knee-deep in snow wearing modern-day snowshoes and a headlight attached to my forehead like a third eye.
I’m hardly the beauty right now, but the beast? Maybe.
“Let your feet bite the snow,” says snowshoe instructor Pierre Lanz, with so much conviction that it’s hard not to imagine my feet as possessed werewolves mauling the ground. The truth is, I’ve never had feet that were supposed to bite anything.
It’s dark but we’re tracing the footprints of snow rabbits and the heart-shaped hooves of ibexes as we trek our way through the Steinenwald Forest.
At just below 0°C, it’s relatively balmy for a night-time winter walk in Switzerland. It’s beautiful as the village lights wink at us while our feet crunch the snow, leaving alien paw prints behind. Now, if only Pierre would stop talking about avalanches.
We’ve started our journey in Wengen – one of the storybook villages situated at varying altitudes in the valleys of the Bernese Alps. Wengen is situated at 1 274m above sea level while neighbouring Mürren is at 1 650m and Engelberg a mere 1 020m.
These car-free villages with their cobbled pathways and horse-drawn carriages would not be out of place in a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Nestled in valleys and often shadowed by the looming Alps, it’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and finding yourself in Wonderland. Populations here vary between 450 people in Mürren to 1 100 permanent inhabitants in Wengen. Throw in some South Africans and this makes Wengen in particular one of the most sought-after international winter destinations for local travellers. The South African market is the seventh largest group that makes its way to this quaint little town every year.
With all that tourist traffic, it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t any roads to get there. At first deemed far too steep to construct a road, the Swiss have since come up with a novel way to get around this: a fascinating and intricate clockwork co-ordination between cableways and railways.
There are nine car-free villages in Switzerland, making it easy to ski or sled your way to your next doctor’s appointment, or at worst, snowshoe your way to your next curling tournament. Jungfraujoch at 3 454m is the highest railway station in Europe – and if that’s not impressive enough, its history certainly is. The railway was officially opened in August 1912 after Adolf Guyer-Zeller dreamt up the idea of tunnelling through the mountain. The tunnel took 16 years to build. But the dream was not without mishap. On February 26, 1899, six Italian workers were killed in a dynamite explosion. Then in 1908, 30 tons of dynamite exploded which could “be heard even in Germany”. Miraculously, no one was injured. Throughout the tunnel’s entire construction, 30 workers lost their lives and a moving tribute is paid to each inside the completed tunnel.
The subterranean passage is home to a wide variety of “in-house” venues such as a cinema, a ski school and an ice palace. Ever wanted to know what it’s like to walk through the inside of a glacier? This is the place to do it. And in case you’re wondering about the décor, there is a series of ice sculptures carved into the glacier walls, from a glassy penguin colony to seal pups and polar bears, and even Sherlock Holmes.
From Wengen, it’s a relatively short train trip to Mürren, which is the highest continually inhabited village, near Bern. The train meanders through mountains and past waterfalls with the soft clickety-clack of a toy engine. While Mürren lies at the foot of the 2 970m Schilthorn Peak, you’d have to be 007 to reach the summit. The James Bond exhibition is housed on the summit where Piz Gloria is a James Bond-themed revolving restaurant.
A series of cableways takes you there (from Mürren, it’s 4 546m of cableway with two stops), offering breathtaking panoramic views of the Titlis Peak, Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger.
When you begin your journey, the doors of the cable car close to the sound of the James Bond soundtrack. Your mission? Make it to Schilthorn without feeling queasy at the extreme heights. Like rides on a carousel, the cable cars make their way effortlessly ever closer to the very peak. By the time you reach the other side, you’re likely to end up more than a little shaken and stirred.
Piz Gloria – with its Bond-branded cappucinos – is where On her Majesty’s Service was set in 1969, starring George Lazenby as 007. The restaurant revolves 360° in 55 minutes.
Days later in Engelberg, it’s a race against the plummeting temperatures on snowmobiles as we make our way past the igloo village. The igloo hotel is made entirely of ice – including beds that have thermal coverings to keep out the cold. And what would Switzerland be without skiing? Ski lessons are ample but come prepared with good humour. For life on the edge, grab a sled and find the magic of steering with your feet while clutching a tussled rope over bumpy slopes and sharp corners.
But for a real adrenalin rush, take a walk across Europe’s highest suspended bridge – 3 000m above sea level. It’s not your average pedestrian walk so try not to look down as you make your way across the 91m bridge.
From a distance, the Virgin, the Monk and the Ogre will be watching from heady heights. If you do get to meet them, all that will be left is to live happily ever after. - Cape Times
If You Go...
Edelweiss is a Swiss Airline which offers seasonal direct flights from Cape Town to Zurich. There are two flights a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The flights are from September to May. Be sure to purchase a Swiss Rail Pass at the rail centre at Zurich’s airport as a combination of trains and cableways are the only way to reach the Jungfrau region. For more information, see http://www.edelweissair.ch/en/