A bird's eye view of Europe in Switzerland
THE airport in Zurich, Switzerland, is as posh and modern as you would expect in a country famous for its banks, but the sound you hear upon boarding the train into the city is the clanking of cowbells.
Admittedly this is just a recording, but the rustic chimes of the pasture continue in the valley as travellers gawk at cattle idling among the spectacular scenery of the Alps.
This is the Jungfrau region, named after one of the three great snow-clad peaks towering over it - Mounts Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. As if the mountain range was not impressive enough, there are the gorgeous Lakes Thun and Brienz and nestled in the toes of the Alps, the beautiful resort town of Interlaken.
We are headed for "the top of Europe" - Jungfraujoch, at 3,454m above sea level, Europe's highest-altitude railway station. Everything up here is rock, ice and snow.
The reason for this particular trek is that the famous cog railway celebrated its 103rd birthday last month. Hauling millions of passengers each year, it was a pioneering achievement of Swiss engineering, and it still astonishes.
The 1,400m climb from Kleine Scheidegg station to the Jungfraujoch - on a 25 per cent vertical grade - is almost entirely within tunnels, every centimetre cut through granite with precision, in often extreme weather conditions.
Today we can only imagine what a thrill this must have been for the first passengers a century ago, reaching altitudes that had previously admitted only the hardiest of mountaineers. Swiss industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller's resolution in 1883 to build the railway has made the breathtaking panoramas atop Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau accessible to everyone.
Urs Kessler, chief executive of the Jungfrau railway, is fond of pointing out that Europe was awash with pioneering spirit in the 19th century, when invention and innovation boomed.
"For Swiss companies, it's a matter of the efficiency and high quality that people have come to trust," he says. "And Swiss trains are always punctual."
Guyer-Zeller "made the impossible possible" in the face of enormous challenges, Mr Kessler says.
"At first they planned to build the railway right to the summit of the Jungfrau, but that's 4,158m and the weather conditions are bad, so they decided to stop midway.
"In 1899, just three years after construction began, Guyer-Zeller died of pneumonia, but his family carried on his work. Never before has a railway been built at this altitude, under such extreme conditions. The labourers had to work long shifts among the glaciers at 2,320m. They used explosives to cut into the rock and there was an accident; an explosion that took the lives of 17 Italian workers.
"The construction period more than doubled, from seven to 16 years, as did the cost, eventually reaching 16 million francs. But they pushed on from station to station, completing Eigerwand in 1903 and Eismeer in 1905, and on Aug 1, 1912, the Swiss national day, the Jungfraujoch station finally opened."
Mr Kessler characterises the railway as "very simple, very primitive engineering, but efficient", and it is an assessment that King Rama V would no doubt have confirmed when he rode to Kleine Scheidegg station at 2,061m on May 29, 1897 (before Jungfraujoch was built). It was one of many marvels he saw on the first visit to Europe by a Siamese monarch.
ACTIVITIES AT JUNGFRAUJOCH
The entire trip to Jungfraujoch takes about 90 minutes. Once at "the top of Europe", there is a wide range of activities available - though skiing back down is not one of them.
You can watch a four-minute film called The Jungfrau Panorama, which offers a 360-degree experience of the station. You can ride Switzerland's fastest lift to the Sphinx Observatory at the lightning speed of 27 seconds. It has been conducting astronomical research since 1931 and from the outdoor terrace added in 1996, you get to gaze down 3,571m like gods, taking in sights such as the Aletsch Glacier.
Climate change threatens to reduce Switzerland's alpine glaciers from 75 cubic km to just 25 in the next 50 years, so there will be plenty of fresh meltwater - and that is about the only good thing you can say about it.
Sphinx Hall is the starting point for a light and sound walking tour titled Alpine Sensation, which touches on tourism past and present and recounts Guyer-Zeller's noble undertaking before ending at the Ice Palace, a huge cavern carved out by mountain guides in the 1930s. Crystalline sculptures of eagles, penguins and other things are kept artificially chilled so that visitors' body heat does not thaw them.
Most of the year there are opportunities to ski and ride sledges, snow tubes and snowboards, but the more thrilling experience is a two-hour hike to the Monchsjoch Hut, which depends utterly on the use of ropes and crampons but is entirely safe.
Interlaken is an amazing one-day train journey from Jungfraujoch railway. Even more exciting excursions can be arranged, but do not bypass an evening meal atop Harder Kulm, the local high peak famed for its sunset views of the lakes and the taller trio of mountains that turn pink in the day's yielding light.
Romance is also in abundance aboard another historic cogwheel railway, this one climbing to Schynige Platte on a narrow gauge track, passengers bunched together on wooden benches from a bygone era as the magnificent mountain landscape rolls past. The fresh air at the summit station is wonderful, the high triplets waiting in the distance for their photos to be taken.
The 8,000 sq m Botanical Alpine Garden opened in 1929. Abloom with 600 native species of flowering plants, there is a performance of the traditional alphorn at lunchtime.
Your schedule should also make time for a hike around Grindelwald First, 2,200m up and with an aerial cableway to coast through the wind. The views of the Alps and valleys are again spectacular, the cowbells ringing as clear as, well, a bell.
Your fitness tracking wristwatch will count more than 10,000 steps to deep blue Lake Bachalpsee, "the Pearl of the Alps", whose appearance will make any fatigue evaporate. On the way back, you can ride the thrilling First Flyer zip line or a scooter-bike known as the Trotti bike.
Finally, to complete your Swiss odyssey, treat yourself to a luxury Swiss timepiece at the Kirchhofer boutique - or at least some unforgettable Swiss chocolate from Lindt.
IF YOU GO
Switzerland gets plenty of sunshine, but up in the mountains you will still need a warm pullover as well as sunglasses and sunscreen.
The Jungfrau Railways Pass, valid for six consecutive days, is essential. From May to October, it costs 255 francs (S$370).
For more information, visit www.jungfrau.ch
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
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