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Planet Appetite: Mountain Riders in the Sky, Interlaken, Switzerland

15/09/2014 13:21 | Updated 12 November 2014

Interlaken, in the 19th century, with its twin attractions of mountain air and spa waters, attracted some of the first tourists to Switzerland, and miraculous mountain railways were constructed to carry them to the heavens. They're still going strong today.

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Interlaken, as the name suggests lies between two lakes, the Thun and the Brienz. It's surrounded by the Alps and the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger dominate. One railway goes all the way up to Jungfraujoch making it, at 3454m, the highest station in Europe, but you get a better view of the mountains from the other side of the lake.

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Switzerland has had a rainy summer, and I've experienced much of it, being swamped by clouds and downpours in St. Moritz and Zermatt. Today the sun is shining, as I set out on the train from Spiez, gliding down the side of Lake Thun. I change trains in Interlaken and then change again in Wilderswil, this time to the Schynige Platte narrow gauge rack railway which will take me to the peaks.

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In the 19th century, Swiss engineers came up with their own way to tackle the steep gradients of these mountains - they fitted their locomotives with toothed wheels which ratcheted up the track. The system was the first in Europe and has since been adopted all over the world, notably in the Indian Himalayas.

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It takes about an hour for the train to climb to the Schynige Platte station, staff jumping off to change the points or remove obstructions. It's only single track, and other trains wait at designated passing places. The engine is at the back and I'm riding at the front with the lady spotter - her job is to watch out for anything on the line which might impede progress - tiny rocks caught in the track could throw off us off the rails. She tells me that it's worst on the first trains of the day, as debris can collect on the tracks overnight. Fortunately it's all clear at this time in the morning and there are no delays.

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These marvellous feats of engineering weren't built for the locals, but were genuine tourist trains, designed to attract holiday makers who wanted to see the Alps without too much effort. Before the age of the train, people were manhandled up the mountains on sedan chairs and it couldn't have been much fun, particularly on the way down. The longest stairway in the world, consisting of 11674 steps, leads up to Niesen Kulm, overlooking Lake Thun, at 2336m. Fortunately, in 1910 they built the Niesen Funicular, an engineering miracle, with gradients of nearly 70%. You need to change wagons halfway up but, even inside, there's always the danger of your breakfast jumping out of your stomach.

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Back to my train, I arrive at Schynige Platt, at 1967m, and, as I set off for a hike, the mountains, climbing up on the other side of lake are clearly visible. It's a stunning ridge walk along to the Oberberghorn, and a steep scramble to the top, but the views are well worth it.

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Below me, I have a view of the turquoise waters of Lake Brienz and opposite are the majestic peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. I savour the shifting scenery as clouds flirt with the top of the mountains and then make my way back for lunch at the Panorama-Restaurant Schynige Platte.

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The train takes me back down to the valley and I wander around Interlaken. It was monks who first settled here, founding an abbey around 1133, although they were kicked out at the time of the reformation and their lands appropriated. Tourists began to arrive at the beginning of the 19th century, coming for the mountain air and spa treatment, and the town soon became a fixture on the social circuit.

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Steam ships plied the lakes but it was the railways that really made the place accessible. These days it still has the air of a holiday town, with grand hotels providing views of the Jungfrau and the surrounding mountains. It's a busy place, with many Japanese and Middle Eastern visitors, and I retreat to the Hotel Restaurant Meielisalp, 10 miles along Lake Thun to enjoy the sunset and sample their delicious food. As I sip my glass of wine, and watch the day draw to a close, I can see why the tourists keep on coming.

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Discover Interlaken has information about the region.

Jungrau, Top of the World, has information about the mountain railways.

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The Hotel Eden Spiez has views of the lake and makes a comfortable base.

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My Switzerland has information about the country. Call the Switzerland Travel Centre on International Freephone 00800 100 200 30 or email. You can also email for packages, train and air tickets.

SWISS offers up to 19 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. For reservations call 0845 6010956.

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The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport, or Swiss border, and your destination.

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All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.