Lavishly overlooking the park at Interlaken stands the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa – towered, multi-balconied and majestic, a very emblem of Swissness itself. These days it is, of course, equipped with every modern convenience, from saunas and whirlpools to a welcoming Jaguar; yet its lordly style has survived from its foundation in 1865. High on a mountain behind it, an enormous star has been installed; when illuminated at night-time, it seems to hover without visible means of support, guiding the world in an almost biblical way to the splendid old hostelry below.
The Victoria-Jungfrau really did bring the world to the Bernese Oberland when gentlemanly tourism erupted here in the 19th century, and the Alps became all the rage. In the summer, fashionable Europe paraded in the park (now a favourite landing place for hang-gliders). In the winter, intrepid early Alpinists, excitedly surveying from their windows the wild realms of nature that called to them out there, hired their guides, straightened their long skirts, grasped their alpenstocks, coiled their ropes and set off into the mountains.
For this is the true glory of the Victoria-Jungfrau: having spied that star of hospitality glittering in the night sky before you went to bed, look again in the morning and you’ll see the vast white shape of the Jungfrau, 13,642ft high, the queen of the Oberland peaks framed between the foothills directly in front of you.
In those mid-Victorian days, very few of the visitors – and very few of the guides either – actually climbed the Jungfrau. There were a multitude of lesser slopes to challenge them, and at such an altitude the mountain itself was beyond most of their powers. It was not climbed at all until 1811, the first reasonably accessible route was discovered only in 1863 and, until well into the 20th century, most visitors stuck to the lower glaciers and snowfields.
But then, just a century ago, something amazing happened: they opened a railway almost to the summit.
It seems impossible even now, so utterly inaccessible does that summit seem when seen from your hotel bedroom. I am told that, at night, a blue light shines up there but nobody I met had ever seen it, and some said it was myth or folklore. Certainly that high white slope always looked to me, from my own balcony, absolutely empty and inaccessible to humans; and when from time to time another hang-glider came silently swooping and circling down towards the park, I liked to fancy that it was some mythic visitant of the Jungfrau.
In fact, that peak is never entirely without its humans. Even at night there are people up there, and during the day the near summit of the mountain swarms like a human beehive. Half a million tourists go up there every year, and they go there by means of that railway, that amazing creation of the 1900s, which runs every day of the year and is still the highest mountain railway in Europe.
It was a Herculean task that its engineers undertook when they began work on the Jungfrau Railway in 1896. It took them 16 years in all. A workforce of several hundred men, most Italians, laboured round the clock under the direction of a visionary Swiss textile magnate named Adolf Guyer-Zeller. They worked mostly by hand, with shovels and pickaxes, and every single thing they needed had to be carried up there on foot, far, far beyond the treeline, into a thin cold atmosphere that made every effort harder. Thirty men were killed, and the workforce went on strike six times but, over the years, tunnels were mined, pylons were lugged up rock faces, electric power was laid on and at the saddle called the Jungfraujoch, at 11,000ft, they built what is still the highest railway station on earth.
By the time the Jungfrau Railway celebrates its centenary, on August 1 2012 (Switzerland’s national day), some 5m people will probably have taken the train to the Top of Europe, as the publicists call it. At peak times, the cog-railway trains make 100 round trips every day, and they carry some 5,000 passengers, mostly Asians.
It is a spectacular journey still. We must take two ancillary mountain trains to begin it, winding a way through copybook Alpine country, over ravines, through canyons, beyond the treeline, beyond the last of the old-school mountain hotels, beyond the last motor-road, passing in the monstrous lee of Eiger’s north face where so many climbers have died, until we reach Eigergletscher, the huddled base station of the Jungfrau Railway itself.
It stands guard, as it were, in a bare and lifeless landscape, at the portal of the mountain. There are railway workshops there, and there is a kennel building that used to house Husky sledge dogs from Greenland, and three great mountains loom in attendance: the Eiger (13,026ft), Mönch (13,475ft) and Jungfrau itself. And if we poke our heads out of our train window for a moment (get a move on, it is getting chilly by now), we will see a small shaft in the rock face ahead that is the tunnel to the top.
Most of the Jungfrau Railway passes inside that tunnel, and the train’s red-and-yellow coaches seem to move cautiously up it, not very fast, at an average gradient of one in four. It is only a couple of miles long but the train stops twice for a few minutes and we can get out and look through great windows cut in the mountain wall to the stupendous scene outside. Once, we actually look down the dreaded North Wall of the Eiger and finally, when we reach the last underground station, Jungfraujoch at 11,333ft above sea level, we seem to step out of the train into space fiction.
We may feel a little queasy from the altitude by now – we have climbed nearly 5,000ft in the past 40 minutes – but it is not just the height that is affecting us: it is the theatrical nature of the place we have reached, on the flank of the great Aletsch glacier. The settlement up here was first established in 1912 but it still feels to me almost surreally futurist.
For inside the rock of that snowy mountain, or clinging to its surface, a small town thrives. Besides the highest railway station in Europe there is the highest post office and also, this being Switzerland, the highest watch shop. There are three restaurants (including Bollywood serving Indian cuisine) and souvenir shops, of course, and a coffee bar. If we have time to spare, we can wander through the Ice Palace, a long pedestrian tunnel beneath the glacier equipped with ice-figures of penguins, polar bears and such, together with instructive geological features.
But dear God, that’s not all. We may well feel queasy now, after our trek through the Ice Palace at 11,000ft-plus, but after another trudge through another tunnel we find awaiting us a space-age elevator. In the blink of an eye this whisks us vertically another 400ft to the tip of a pinnacle called the Sphinx, the very top of the Top of Europe, and here science fiction becomes science fact.
Up here there is a domed astronomical observatory and a high-altitude research station of global importance, where relays of scientists monitor air pollution, measure the ozone layer, detect stratospheric changes, research cosmic rays, and man the highest permanently manned weather station in Europe. I never spotted a scientist when I was up at the Sphinx but they must be there somewhere, deep inside ice-laboratories perhaps.
Anyway, we ourselves can walk out to a terrace and survey one of the grandest views on earth, celestially shimmering (if the day is right) with snow and sun and white cloud. Half of Europe seems to be spread out there before us, far into France and Germany and Italy, with the mighty rampart of the Alps as our belvedere.
The train goes down again rather faster than it came up, and we are back at the Victoria-Jungfrau in time for cucumber sandwiches.
If we look out of our balcony now, as we pour ourselves some more Earl Grey, we will see in our mind’s eye a very different scene from the prospect that beckoned those hotel Alpinists a century ago. Then the Bernese Oberland really was pristine, with only a few peasant villages linked by mountain tracks. Now it is one of the supreme tourist destinations of Europe, which makes its living, winter and summer, by the skilful exploitation of simplicity. Now the names of those mountain hamlets, Grindelwald and Murren, Lauterbrunnen and Wengen are well-known, and the mountain slopes swarm with railways, cable cars, ski-lifts and funiculars, with little stations everywhere, and tunnels all over the place.
These momentous changes began in the 1850s, when the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel first opened its doors, and they are climaxed to this day by the Jungfrau Railroad, its sturdy little coaches crawling up the mountain flank, through its tunnels, 365 days in the year, without a break since the day it deposited its first astonished passengers at the Top of Europe, 100 Swiss years ago.
The Interlaken-Jungfraujoch (www.jungfrau.ch) rail journey takes 2 hours 20 minutes, and costs from SFr190 (£130) return. Jan Morris was a guest of the Swiss national tourist office (www.myswitzerland.com), the VictoriaJungfrau Grand Hotel (www.victoriajungfrau.ch; double rooms from SFr520) and of Swiss(www.swiss.com), which flies to Zurich from four UK cities from £105 return. The Swiss Transfer Ticket offers a round-trip on public transport from any Swiss airport or border crossing to any destination in the country, for £95 in second class and £145 in first class – see www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk