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.
An unmissable afternoon excursion begins in the nearby village of Stechelberg, the base station of the Schilthornbahn cableway. From here a cable car swings up to chocolate-box villages like Gimmelwald and Mürren, perched like eyries on a ledge above the Lauterbrunnen Valley and peering across to Eiger's fearsome north face. The treetops and mountain faces seem startlingly close as you cable-car past, up to the 2,970m Schilthorn which is crowned by the revolving restaurant of Piz Gloria. Bond film directors chose this as the hideaway of 007's arch-villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. You can see why: reaching over a spine of 200 peaks from Mont Blanc to the Black Forest, the 360-degree panorama is pure drama. Stay the night up in the mountains in Gimmelwald or Mürren, or down in the valley in Lauterbrunnen.
Day three: Swiss time travel
It is a 15-minute train ride from Lauterbrunnen to the village of Wilderswil, where a little red train has been crossing between pine and peak to the 1,967m plateau of Schynige Platte since 1893. Looking like a full-scale model of a fastidious Hornby collector, the train evokes an unhurried and romantic age. As the rack-railway coils languidly uphill, there is almost something artistic about the way the scenery unfolds: wildflower-flecked meadows give way to thick forest, which opens to reveal broad views of lakes Brienz and Thun, splashes of turquoise in the valley below. After 50 minutes when it finally arrives at the top, the picture is complete: the snowy bulk of of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau dominates the horizon once again.
Show up in anything but walking boots at Schynige Platte and you will attract a few strange looks. This counts among Switzerland's best hiking territory. Serious trekkers catch the first train up here to embark on the 15km, six-hour Faulhornweg hike, which negotiates scree-strewn slopes to the knobbly summit of the 2,681m Faulhorn (“lazy rock”). In business since 1832, Berghotel Faulhorn is the oldest mountain hotel in the Alps and a scenic spot for a drink before the final two hours of the walk. The ice-shrouded peaks of Wetterhorn (3,701m), Schreckhorn (4,078m) and Finsteraarhorn (4,274m) soar above you as you approach the end of the trail at the cableway station, where gondolas glide down to the resort of Grindelwald in 17 minutes.
If you are pushed for time, opt instead for the local two-hour Panoramaweg circuit hike and a visit to the Alpengarten gardens where you can brush up on your Alpine botany and glimpse purple trumpet-like gentian, hot pink alpenrosen and snow white, start-shaped edelweiss flowers.
Make it happen
The valley town of Lauterbrunnen and the mountain resorts of Wengen, Mürren and Grindelwald are good bases for exploring the region. Campsites, hostels, bed and breakfasts and hotels are listed on Jungfrauregion.ch. The six-day Jungfrau Railways Pass and the money-saving Swiss Pass are worth considering if you are planning lots of rail travel. Taking the first or last train to Jungfraujoch is cheapest, with a return ticket costing 90 Swiss francs from Kleine Scheidegg. Always check mountain weather before you set out -- no mountain trip is fun in the fog or rain.
The article 'To the top of Europe by Swiss rail' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.