Jungfraujoch and the Sphinx Observatory - (c) Jungfrau Region / Jungfrau Railways
No visit to the Bernese Oberland is complete without a trip up to Jungfraujoch. Ok, so it may be quite expensive, and it may be very busy with tourists from the far-east, all seemingly being herded up and down the mountain by their tour operators as if they're in some sort of race ! Yet the reason it's so popular is because it's so unique... A railway line inside the north face of the Eiger ? With viewing windows in the rock face ? And Europe's highest railway station further on, high above at 3450m ?
...Is this for real ? Did they genuinely do it ?
Well yes they did, and all done at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Building a railway station at such a height nowadays would be pretty impressive, but doing it inside the Eiger, one of Europe's most iconic mountains, more than 100 years ago, now that's spectacular.
Getting up to the Jungfraujoch railway station and buildings (branded and advertised as 'Top of Europe') involves a series of trains up from either Lauterbrunnen in the valley below, or Grindelwald on the other side of the mountain. Trains from both of these will take you up to Kleine Scheidegg, a mountain pass that is home to a railway station and the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes, best known as the hotel base in the Clint Eastwood spy film, The Eiger Sanction.
From Kleine Scheidegg, another train, the Jungfraubahn, takes travellers up to the Jungfraujoch via a 7km long tunnel, right up and into the Eiger itself, before it reappears about 50 minutes later at the top. However, it's not an uninterrupted journey. There are actually two stops inside the mountain at which you can get off the train for 5 minutes to have a look and take some photos. The first stop is at Eigerwand, which is immediately behind the north face of the Eiger and where an 8m long window has been placed into the actual mountain face so that people getting off the train can use it as a viewing window down to the valleys below. As you can imagine, it's an incredible scene, and rather eerie, suddenly looking out from such an inhospitable place. Get back on the train (be careful at this point, some of our fellow travellers decide to swap seats with everyone at this point when they got back on !) and it will then stop again, at Eismeer, for another viewing window, this time onto "the Sea of Ice". After that, the next stop is the Jungfraujoch complex.
The Jungfraujoch complex are connected to the railway station by a series of tunnels and elevators. It's very James Bond-esque, like a baddie's hidden alpine lair, and great to just wander around in such an unnatural environment. There are a number of restaurants and cafés up here, with some amazing views over the Aletsch Glacier on a clear day. With all the glass and metal it's got a nice modern feel to it too.
The Jungfraujoch facilities are accessed by walking through some more tunnels. Don't worry, these tunnels are large by the way - it's not like you're caving! Amongst the attractions is the Ice Palace, which are some ice caverns that have been carved out and lit up. Another tunnel gives access to the outside world at a relatively flat section, where you'll find a number of people throwing snowballs around and, if it's in the summer, enjoying the novelty of walking on snow in the hottest months. A few years ago there used to be some husky dogs up here, but not enough tourists wanted to pay to have a sled ride with them, so they've recently been moved. The scientific Sphinx Observatory is up above the complex, and whilst you can't get into it (someone lives there!), you can get access to viewing platforms via a lift.
All in all, a trip up to Jungfraujoch is a fantastic excursion. It may not be cheap, but it's certainly worth it.
The official website for Excursions: Jungfraujoch - Top of Europe is: www.jungfrau.ch