Jungfrau: A Magic Winter Wilderness


Switzerland’s Jungfrau region is known, at least in British circles, for the skiing. For this reputation, it thanks Sir Henry Lunn of Lunn Poly fame. Formerly a Methodist missionary, Lunn discovered a penchant for Winter Sports in the region’s town of Grindelwald nestled beneath the Eiger Mountain at a convention of Protestant churches.

His recently developed taste for the slopes would lead Lunn and his son, Arnold, to establish the Public Schools’ Alpine Sports Club, which, by offering hotel accommodation near the mountains, was the precursor of the ski travel business. The PSASC led to the establishment of Alpine hotels in Mürren, Klosters and Wengen, and indeed I even bumped into Stephen Lunn when skiing in Mürren earlier in January.

Nevertheless, today it’s easier to understand why Sir Henry fell in love with the Jungfrau region when you stay away from the ski resorts he established. For it is in its remote snowscapes, that the Jungfrau region is most enchanting.

For the non-German speakers, the Jungfrau region translates as the “Virgin” region – so-called not because of the celibacy of its inhabitants but because of the Jungfrau Mountain, whose chastity, according to legend, is protected by the Monk Mountain next to it, squaring up against the Eiger (or Ogre) opposite.

Eiger illustration

That parochial sense of fairytale and folklore is palpable here, away from the banks, the suits and the punctual trains. In the vast expanses of snow-covered mountain Alpine trees are solitary figures in a bleakly magical landscape, it is as if we have fallen through the wardrobe into Narnia.

On my first morning I took a short car ride up to into the Lombachalp; protected moorlands a few kilometres from my hotel in Interlaken. Winding up through the narrow lanes, the landscape changes dramatically as the fringes of Interlaken’s humdrum suburbia ebbs away leaving black crags in mountain snow.

The Lombachalp is eerily quiet. We arrive by a small guesthouse, the restaurant Jägerstübli – Swiss for Hunter’s lodge – and are eagerly handed snowshoes by our guide Mario. With Mario’s guidance we assail the moorland’s undulating peaks. It’s hard work but worth it. For the uninitiated, snowshoeing is hiking but with specialist footwear that allows you to gain purchase on deep snow. It means you can explore more secluded parts of this Narnia-like terrain, appreciating the stillness of the Alpine air.

It takes us about an hour to get up to one of the ridges of the Augstmatthorn and look below. Beneath us is Lake Brienz – in the grey mist the epic vista appears like a Caspar David Friedrich painting; it is majestic and mystical and there is not a soul for miles.

Jungfrau Region: Schneeschuhwandern

When it’s like this, Switzerland is beautiful. It’s the Switzerland that enthused Byron, the Switzerland that he described as “beyond all description or previous conception,” and that inspired him when he wrote Manfred.

But Byron is not the only British literary figure to have gained inspiration from these mountains. At the end of the 19th Century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was visiting the Jungfrau region, as the guest of none other than Sir Henry Lunn. At the time Doyle was wrestling with how to engineer the demise of Sherlock Holmes. The character had become a burden for him. It was Lunn’s recommendation that Doyle should have him pushed over the Reichenbach Falls on the outskirts of Meiringen.

Today the Reichenbach Falls can only be visited in summer. The winter renders the walk up to the falls dangerous and inaccessible. Yet even when viewed from afar it is a majestic sight, and although you can’t reach the Falls themselves, the woodlands near Meiringen are astonishingly beautiful. Snow was falling thick when I hiked through them on a Sunday morning. Log cabins on stilts were barely perceptible, as an icy brook rushed spiritedly through the valley.

The whole is like a scene from a Nordic noir. It’s an undeniably cinematic place. As of course you’d expect given that the Jungfrau Mountains provided one of the Bond franchise’s most memorable locations in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Although On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is admittedly marred by Lazenby’s Bond, it contains some of the best action sequences of the early Bond films, particularly the ski chase at night. And the focal point for those action scenes is the infamous Piz Gloria – Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s lair.

Interlaken: SchilthornA good friend has said that it is one of his minor life ambitions to visit Piz Gloria. For Bond fans it is a treat. The Bond museum there provides some fascinating details on the production stories of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – how did they, for example, manage to film that ski chase? Blofeld’s lair, returned to its original function as a revolving restaurant, is, as you’d expect, a bit kitsch. The lattes are emblazoned with the 007 logo, as are the 007 Burgers. Yet although the food isn’t that great, Piz Gloria does provide an astonishing view, and if you allow yourself a moment’s peace from the groups of tourists you may well believe yourself to be on her majesty’s secret service yourself.

The Jungfrau region is a place where stories and fantasies come to life. Our Great British storytellers have discovered the region’s magic again and again, and, unlike many parts of Europe today, that magic is still there to be found if you embrace its wintry wilderness.

For more information on the Jungfrau region, including skiing, visitor packages, events and even the weather report, visit the website.

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