The ultimate Swiss tourist trap

Luckily there's no railway to the Grand Combin glacier
Luckily there’s no railway to the Grand Combin glacier near Verbier

In the summer of 1868, three years before the Rigi railway at Lake Lucerne was completed, an English noblewoman travelling incognito made an excursion to Mount Rigi. The stout 49-year-old woman had a lot of work and family troubles on her mind as she was carried up the mountain in a sedan chair. But this lady was no ordinary tourist. She happened to be the most powerful woman in the world, with the job title Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Queen Victoria visited at the beginning of the mountain railway boom. Entrepreneurs were snapping up railway concessions all over the Alps and rushing to complete the first, the highest, the steepest railway lines to make a killing in the lucrative new tourist market.

It is a staggering fact that two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains. Small communities had always eked out an existence on the lower slopes but the great peaks were out of bounds, known only from a distance. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the Alps began to be seen as an amenity, first for hikers and climbers and later for less adventurous visitors who could be transported up to dizzying heights in their Sunday best.

Not everyone agreed that laying tracks and blasting tunnels in the Alps for tourists was a worthwhile pursuit, as I discovered when researching article for about the centenary of the Jungfrau railway last year.

“We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful,” the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society wrote in a petition to the government calling for a more prudent granting of railway concessions.

In its first full year in operation, 1913, the Jungfraujoch station – Europe’s highest train station – on the shoulder of the Jungfrau mountain in the Bernese Oberland attracted 42,880 tourists; last year 833,000 people, myself included, made the unique rail trek to “The Top of Europe”.

The return trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres above sea level) is about an hour and a half each way, with two train changes. If ever I had the feeling of being herded, it was on that day. I joined the multitudes of Indian, Chinese, American, European and Arab tourists being efficiently ushered from one train to the next by smartly-dressed guides. After leaving Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey there were more stops inside the tunnel at the viewing windows cut into the rock face.

I arrived at the top around lunchtime to join throngs of people wandering around through a maze of tunnels or milling about in front of the different eateries (including what must be the most expensive Indian buffet in mainland Europe). I could see the magnificent Aletsch glacier for a few minutes before everything was obscured by cloud.

Here’s the report I wrote for about the centenary.

The 200-franc day trip which is billed as the ultimate Swiss tourist experience seemed to me to be rather overpriced, overhyped and exhausting. Within minutes of boarding the return train, everyone on board promptly fell asleep, wiped out by the altitude and possibly the stress of being herded around all day.

Here’s a little secret. Switzerland is full of mountains and easy ways of getting up them and while I’m not saying they all look the same, there are spectacular views to be seen from almost anywhere, even the top of the smallest, most humble 12-franc chair lift.

It’s holiday time again. Have you got any tourist trap stories to share?

This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun
This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun