One of the optional excursions on the Europe Jewel tour when you are in Switzerland is a train trip to the Jungfraujoch where the Sphinx vantage terrace sits at 3571 metres above sea level, and where on a clear day you have spectacular panoramic views across the Alps. (Words and photos by Jo Castro.)
It’s an amazing trip, and although the holiday town of Interlaken, where we stayed, is drop-dead gorgeous, the Jungfrau rail trip really emphasises the majesty of the mountains, plus it’s an incredible engineering project too.
As an optional tour, it’s up to you whether you decide to book or not, but I know that despite adverse weather conditions, I would have had serious FOMO (fear of missing out!) had I not embarked on this amazing expedition to the very top of Switzerland.
On top of Europe
After a wow-a-minute 2 hour train journey (on three trains) the sign that greets you as you enter the Jungfraujoch station is “Welcome to the top of Europe” and you certainly feel on top of the world. You may also feel some effect of the high altitude – I found that fast walking suddenly became a bit more of an effort.
Permanent Snow Scenes
This Alpine tour offers much more than just a train ride to the top, although the train ride is itself part of the objective.
Far reaching snow filled views across France, Germany and Italy are your reward on a clear day, although you are pretty much guaranteed snow at any time of the year.
We took the tour in late April on a cold day of mist, rain and snow. We hoped the weather forecast would be wrong, but it wasn’t and at the top the views we had anticipated consisted only of walls of white, and more white!
Did it worry us? No, not a bit because Expat Explorers from countries where no snow falls, quickly fell into snow angel poses in the powdery white stuff on the Sphinx Terrace and a snowball fight broke out between Colombia and Malaysia!
Those of us who had seen snow before enjoyed being caught in a thick snow storm as we changed trains, and also enjoyed discovering the many exhibits at the summit – such as the Ice Palace, the Alpine Sensation, the Jungfrau-Panorama and the gift shops (think Lindt chocolate!) as well as learning about the construction of this amazing station and the research facility high up amongst the mountain tops.
We witnessed swirling clouds, thick mist and high waterfalls as we rode up on a train which was not busy and had a distinct absence of skis and ski poles stacked in the baggage areas – because the winter ski season had just finished.
However, an air of expectation and excitement hung heavy in the air as rugged-up passengers contemplated a journey to the very top of Switzerland, and we began the steep awe-inspiring ascent with big smiles on our faces.
What to expect
On a clear day the Jungfraujoch is a fairy-tale world of ice and caves, and you could have a view of the Aletsch Glacier, the largest ice stream in the Alps which is around 22 kilometres in length and covers an area of around 80 square kilometres.
On days without clouds or snow you can also expect fantastic views over the borders of Swizerland to the Vosges Mountains in France and the Black Forest in Germany.
The Train Ride
From my journal: “We leave the beautiful town of Interlaken and pass forests, gushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls before changing trains at Lauterbrunnen for the first ascent, and then later we change trains again at Kleine Scheidegg.”
Tip: Kleine Scheidegg is at the foot of the Eiger’s North Wall. It’s the watershed between two Lutschinen Valleys and it’s a meeting point for Alpine herdsmen and climbers attempting the Eiger.
From my journal: “Long sheer drops and spectacular views of hillsides dotted with picturesque, picture postcard perfect houses and spring flowers are the first things we begin snapping photos of as we are able to pull down the windows on the train to take photos.
We are on the Wengernalp Railway which boasts the longest stretch of cogwheel railway in Switzerland (19.3 kilometres) and because of the snow, I’m glad of the cogs and the snow plough on front of the train
We wrap our jackets tight around us against the snow, and those of us in trainers wish, as we sink deep into the white stuff, that we had worn waterproof shoes!”
There are two picture stops as we pass through a tunnel hewn out of rock; at the Eiger Wall or Eigerwan and at the Sea of Ice or Eismeer. In good weather you can expect panoramic views of the Eiger North Wall and over the glaciers from large windows that have been cut into the tunnel walls and on clear days you can expect spectacular views. There are also toilets at these stops.
From my journal: “When we left Florence yesterday the temperature was 27 degrees Celcius, and now past Wengen it’s snowing and below zero. Big white flakes clump on the branches of pine trees as we climb higher and higher, and the fields have changed from deep green to white. We seem to be heading into a wonderland of cloud and snow, windows are snapped shut and jackets zipped up. Soft, shimmering, pastel hue’d Tuscany this is not! It’s white, bright and mysterious as we head upwards into the clouds.”
What is there to do?
The Jungfrau trip really consists of three main things:
1. The interesting and scenic train journey.
2. The exhibits, tunnels, ice sculptures and snow experience.
3. The incredible views (on a clear day).
This is a 250 metre long tunnel between the Sphinx Hall and the Ice Palace and it’s called the Alpine Sensation Round-Tour Subway.
In the Sphinx Hall a panoramic 360 degree audio visual takes visitors into the high Alpine world around the Jungfraujoch with a 4 minute audio cinematic journey through the world of ice, rocks and snow of the region.
Then you’ll walk through tunnels to a hall decorated with Edelweiss lights and a Little Switzerland display, before moving walkways take you past a mural illustrating the development of tourism in the Alps. There are historic photos telling you about the construction of the railway and information about the ground breaking vision of Adolf Guyer-Zeller the builder of the Jungfrau Railway. There’s also a bridge through Europe’s highest altitude karst cave.
The Ice Palace
I really enjoyed the amazing ice tunnels and sculptures of the Ice Palace an enormous cavern hewn from ice in the glacier itself. It was begun in 1934 and now it’s like a maze, covering an area of over 1000 square metres with large and small passageways and ice sculptures; penguins, eagles and a sculpture of Sherlock Holmes are just a few.
Retail therapy and Food glorious Food!
Within the complex you’ll find 5 Restaurants, several shops and a post office – the highest in Europe! You can buy souvenirs, Swiss watches and Lindt chocolate under the ‘Top of Europe’ brand.
The Sphinx Terrace
The Sphinx Terrace is reached by a fast lift that takes you to the Sphinx Observatory in 27 seconds. The vantage terrace can, on clear days, give you a great view over the Aletsch Glacier, to Vosge in France and across to Germany’s Black Forest too.
Snowballs and Snowmen
Have fun in the snow – throw a snowball, make snow angels, build a snowman! If you’ve never seen snow, you’ll be sure of finding some at Jungfraujoch.
Walks and Hikes
If the weather had been fine we would have liked to do the Jungfrau Eiger Walk – This is around 3 kilometres in length and the uphill walk will take you about 1 hour, downhill about 45 minutes. It’s a hiking trail from the Eigergletscher station to Klein Scheidegg. Apparently it gives you an insight into the tough conditions of the Eiger. One of the focal points of the Eiger legend, the historic Mittellegi Hut, which was erected on the northeast ridge of the Eiger in 1924 and was a refuge for generations of alpinists, gives today’s hikers an idea of what it was like for the generations of climbers who used it as a sanctuary.
What if it’s snowing?
If it’s cloudy and snowing you won’t have great views from the top, but it was cold and misty when we visited and we still managed to have a fun time and enjoyed the snowy journey on the train, just witnessing the incredible engineering of the railway, and the exhibits at the top.
The Jungfrau Region is in the heart of the Bernese Oberland stretching from the town of Interlaken to the snow capped summits of the Jungfrau massif about 18 kilometres away.
First pencil sketches of the railway were drawn by Swiss industrial magnate Adolf Guyer-Zeller in 1893. He had an idea while on a hike to blast a tunnel through the rock of the Eiger and Monch and construct a cogwheel railway to the Jungfrau summit. Europe’s highest altitude railway at 3454 metres opened on 1 August 1912 after 16 years’ construction.
On peak days the Jungfrau Railway makes up to 110 journeys bween Klein Scheidegg and the Jungfrau in both directions and in summer the trains run to a half hourly schedule.
The Ice palace can move up to 15 centimetres per year and has to be constantly recut. Due to the warmth generated by thousands of visitors it has to be constantly cooled to minus three degrees.
The Sphinx ridge was named because of its similarity with the figure from Greek and Egyptian mythology. Between 1936 and 1937 a two storey building was erected on the Sphinx rock and after several additions the current vantage hall was added to the observatory in 1996 giving visitors panoramic views in all weathers, inside or outside.
Swiss Highland Single Malt whisky is matured in an ice grotto on the Jungfraujoch. Only around one thousand 50 cl bottles of this limited cask are available for sale per year.
Disclaimer: Jo’s trip to the Jungfraujoch was courtesy of Jungfrau Railways and Expat Explore.
Jo Castro is a freelance travel writer. She’s resident in Western Australia and she’s lived in 11 different countries on 4 continents with her geologist husband and two children. You can find her on her blogs Lifestyle Fifty (inspiration and lifestyle) and The ZigaZag Mag (travel and Western Australia) or on Twitter @johannaAcastro. Connect with her on Facebook at Lifestyle Fifty (http://www.facebook.com/lifestylefifty) or The ZigaZag Mag (http://www.facebook.com/thezigazagmag). Join her on Instagram at Lifestyle Fifty http://www.instagram.com/lifestylefifty