To the top of Europe by Swiss rail
Take the bright red gauge-rack railway from Kleine Scheidegg up to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. (Glenn van der Knijff/LPI)
Goethe, Byron, Mark Twain and James Bond film directors have all rhapsodised about the ravishing beauty of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, endeavouring to capture it in verse, in prose or on camera. But despite the hype, seeing really is believing when it comes to Switzerland's Alpine heartland, a region perfectly explored on a long summer weekend.
Day one: Top of Europe
In a land with a ludicrous amount of lovely train rides for its size, picking one “must-do” is almost impossible. But in 2012 the honour must surely go to the Jungfraubahn railway, which has been trundling up to Europe's highest train station, Jungfraujoch (3,454m), since its inauguration on 1 August 1912. (The railway is celebrating its 100th anniversary in true Swiss style this August). If the train station seems like a feat of engineering today, imagine how it must have seemed back then, after 16 years and 3,000 men in the making.
To beat the crowds, get an early start on your first day by staying overnight at mountain station Kleine Scheidegg, the departure point for the Jungfraubahn, and catch the 8 am train. Waiting to board the bright red gauge-rack railway, you will get a tantalising view of the fabled "Big Three": the 3,970m Eiger, the 4,107m Mönch and the 4,158m Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin). Once on board, however, the 50-minute, 9.3km ride is almost entirely tunnel, burrowing through the rocky heart of Eiger and Mönch. The train stops twice en route, at Eigerwand and Eismeer stations, both with phenomenal views across wild mountains and crevassed glacial ice, before cresting Jungfraujoch.
Even in midsummer, it feels like winter at Jungfraujoch: temperatures are cooler and the air thinner than in the valley below, and people sled, ski and zip-line across the snow. Opened in April 2012 to mark the centenary, the new Alpine Sensation, a 250m journey of discovery, whizzes through the history of the Jungfraubahn railway with light and sound effects, projected photos and a giant snowglobe. It links the Ice Palace, a grotto of ice sculptures, with the Sphinx Hall observatory. On clear days you will probably want to head straight out onto the observatory's wraparound terrace, which looks out over a rippling sea of pearly-white summits, deep into Italy, Germany and France and over the 22km-long tongue of the Aletsch Glacier, the longest of its kind in the Alps and a Unesco World Heritage site.
To maximise on these views, return around midday to Kleine Scheidegg and spend the afternoon hiking the Panoramaweg trail, which begins at the train station and leads to the 2,343m mountain of Männlichen. Weaving through meadows and past brooks, the easygoing, one-and-a-half-hour trail, commands a peerless panorama of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. From Männlichen, a gondola drifts down to Grindelwald and a cable car descends to Wengen both attractive mountain resort towns in which to spend the night.
Day two: Waterfall heaven and 007
A short, morning train ride from Grindelwald or Wengen brings you down to the U-shaped Lauterbrunnen Valley, where it is as though nature has, quite literally, pulled out all the stops. In summer, the force of 72 waterfalls plunging over rock faces that rise to glacier-crested mountains elicits gasps of wonder from travellers. In 1778, German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was blown away by the 297m-high Staubbach Falls and penned the poem Song of the Spirits, exalting the beauty of the waters. Lord Byron's 1816 Alpine journal compares the torrent to the "long white tale of the pale horse upon which death is mounted in the Book of Revelations". And seen in the early-morning light, it is an almost god-like canvas, with vaporous threads of spray floating ethereally down the cliffside. A five-minute drive south, the Trümmelbachfälle are more of a crash-bang spectacle. The 10 falls drain the Jungfrau region's biggest glaciers, corkscrewing through ravines and potholes and dropping from a height of 140m at a speed of up to 20,000 litres per second.