The Jungfrau region: An artistic refuge in Switzerland
Few people know of how the epic landscapes of Switzerland's Jungfrau region also inspired the literary legacy of Goethe and Tolkien, besides the spirit of adventure.
For a country of hills and vales typified through the folkloric tales of William Tell and Heidi, it might come as a surprise to many that Switzerland is also the inspiration behind JRR Tolkein’s Rivendell.
While New Zealand may have served as the shooting locale for the Lord of the Rings saga, it was the Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland (highlands of Bern Canton) that provided literary stimulus. In a letter written to his son in the 1950’s, Tolkien acknowledged that the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the other side of the ‘Misty Mountains’ was based on his own Swiss adventures in 1911.
As part of a group of 12, with his brother Hillary and friends, a 19-year-old Tolkien travelled on foot from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by mountain paths to the head of the valley, eastward over the two high passes Kleine and Grosse Scheidegge to Grindelwald and eventually Merringen.
They continued over the Grimsel Pass through Upper Valais to Brig, the Aletsch Glacier and finished up in Zermatt and the Matterhorn. A new walking tour ‘There and Back Again’, retraces the 290km walking route, though we were content to follow most of the journey by train.
The Bernese Oberland was the first place of mass tourism in Switzerland. British schoolboys came here for a break in the 1830s after finishing school. Before getting the world to travel, the first trip Thomas Cook ever took was to Interlaken in 1863. German composers Wagner and Mendelssohn, Mark Twain, Ted Roosevelt and a host of climbers came here.
In 1874, the Bodeli Railway carried the first travelers from across the world to the Custom House, as Interlaken Ost was then called. With the opening of the Bernese Oberland Railway in 1890 and a ship jetty in 1891, tourism boomed.
After watching Deep Purple and local hero Gola at the Snowpenair Concert at Kleine Scheidegg few years ago courtesy Jungfrau Railways, we were here for another spectacular event. Golfing sensation and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy was teeing off at the 22 km long Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which ran to a depth of one mile, at Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.
We reached Interlaken Ost and took a connecting train to our base Grindelwald where we checked into Sunstar Hotels. Cradled at the base of the jagged north face of the Eiger, it overlooked the Snowpark Grindelwald First.
Gondolas transported tourists to Schreckfeld and First for the thrill of ziplining down the First Flyer and First Glider, the new Cliff Walk by Tissot and the hour’s hike to the pristine mountain lake Bachalpsee, besides other adventures like Mountain Cart and Trotti Bikes.
It was the annual festival day so Grindelwald’s main avenue had been blocked with makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, local wines, winter wear and food.
We grabbed a bratwurst and some churros before boarding a train to Wilderswil, from where the Schynige Platte Bahn took us on a steep 7.2 km ride on a cogwheel-railway track climbing 1400m to the famous alpine wildflower gardens of Schynige Platte. Built in 1893, this mountain railway completed 125 years this year.
Man and machine seemed in harmony with nature as the locomotives bore names of alpine flowers. We were riding No.19 ‘Fluhblume’. Visitors can see nearly 600 species of plants and two thirds of all the flowers in the Alps on a circuit that’s only a kilometer long.
Sometimes jet-black, sometimes silver in the evening sun after a thunderstorm, the plates of slate gleam from afar, giving Schynige Platte its name.
The train halted at Breitlauenen and we admired the view at Ferdinanad Hodler lookout point, where one of the best-known Swiss painters of the nineteenth century sat to paint. His piece ‘The Woodcutter’ featured on the 50 Swiss Franc note.
We were lucky to get some fresh feathery snowfall on the train ride winding through tunnels and a landscape blanketed in white. Two huge picture frames encourage visitors to capture the trio of mountains but the clouds masked the majestic view of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch.
At Berghotel Schynige Platte we enjoyed a typical Swiss meal of goulash, Wilderer rosti with venison and Alpler rosti or hash browns with pan fried sausage and onion sauce.
Over 200 years ago, as the first visitors travelled to the Bernese Oberland, the Schynige Platte was already a favourite among the wealthy upper class. People thronged grand hotels in Interlaken besides inns and guesthouses in villages and valleys, driven by the maxim ‘up into the mountains, to the summits’.
The hike from Schynige Platte to the Faulhorn and Grosse Scheidegg was a classic, done by day or moonlight. Back then, the train ‘saved four to five hours of walk and a cost of 20 to 25 francs for beasts of burden.’ Early travel journals noted how the Jungfrau always seemed inaccessible and untouchable, hence its name Jungfrau (the maiden or virgin).
In 1811 Jungfrau was scaled and the golden age of Alpine mountaineering culminated in the ascent of Eiger’s north face in 1933. But like people, even the trains had learned to climb. Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned the historic Jungfrau Railways, tunneling 7.2km through the Eiger and Monch to reach Europe’s highest railway station Jungfraujoch.
In 2001, the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region became the first area of outstanding natural beauty in Switzerland together with the Alpine region to be recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Today, one million visitors flock to the Top of Europe to delight in the snowy pleasures of Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace, Sphinx observatory (reached by the fastest lift in Switzerland) and Swiss Chocolate Heaven by chocolatier Lindt.
Braving winds for a selfie with the Swiss lag at the Plateau, tourists shriek in delight as they go sledding or whooshing down the 250-m long zipline. The year-round accessibility only adds to the destination’s popularity.
Yet, the Jungfrau region is dotted with smaller villages that retain their rustic charm. From Kleine Scheidegg, we took the Wengernalp Bahn past the ‘pedestrian only’ village of Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, dubbed as the Valley with 72 glacial waterfalls.
Well-fed Swiss cows munched on sweet-smelling Alpine grass, their tinkling bells forming a constant soundtrack. As the train took the final turn across the bridge, we got a magical view of the church and Staubbach Falls.
The earliest travel guide to the Lauterbrunnen valley was published in 1768 by Bernese publisher Abraham Wager featuring illustrations by Swiss painter Caspar Wolf.
It was a 45min walk from the train station to the base of the fall past pretty chalets and Horner ‘the best pub in town because we are the only one’. The cataract plummeted from a lofty 297 m in a misty spray – it was first measured on 28 July 1776. Like us, many painters, writers and travelers were captivated by its beauty.
Poet and composer Johann Wolfgang Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The sight of Staubbach Falls delighted him so much that he called it a ‘most wonderful thing’ and wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters”.
In his travel diary dated Sep 1816, Lord Byron noted how the sun made a rainbow in the waterfall. “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”
One look at the scenery and Tolkien’s description of Rivendell came to life. Cascading waterfalls and a loud river that overlooked the three ‘Misty Mountain Peaks’ were no doubt based on Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger.
The mines of Moria were inspired by the construction of the Jungfraubahn, which was being finished when Tolkien visited in 1911. We learnt ‘Orc’ is a local name for a demon and how a picture postcard of a painting Der Berggeist (the mountain spirit) by German artist J Madlener depicting an old man with a white flowing beard wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long cloak, was the origin of Gandalf.
We couldn’t agree more with Tolkien’s words – “I left the view of the Jungfrau with great regret – eternal snow etched as it seems against eternal sunshine.”
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min).
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes. Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe's highest station at Jungfraujoch. A three-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations).
Where to stay
Carlton Europa, Interlaken
Sunstar Hotels, Grindelwald
Berghotel Schynige Platte
Things to Do
Jungfraubahn to Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
First Flyer, First Glider, Tissot Cliff Walk, Mountain Cart
Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte
Hike from First to Bachalpsee
Walk to Staubbach waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
Harderbahn Funicular from Interlaken to Harder Kulm
BLS boat cruise on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz