Growing up in the southern hemisphere, my first exposure to European history, culture and geography came through classical music and literature. In Switzerland I'm living in the city of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the list of places I want to see in Europe has formed in large part around books and music: Berlin for Beethoven, Vienna for Vivaldi, Paris for Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, London for, well, everything. One place in Switzerland has been on my list since day one because it's so close, and yet because it's so close I never got around to visiting it. That place is the Reichenbachfalls near the village of Meiringen, put on the map of popular imagination by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes.
A writer friend who shares my love of classic Sherlock Holmes was my final kick to get out to Meriringen, and very kindly made all the arrangements hiring a car to do so. With the two of us and two other friends we made it a party of four on a day trip into the Swiss countryside. The drive from Geneva to Meiringen is maybe two and a half hours, mostly because it involves driving along winding roads squeezed between mountains and a lake. It wouldn't be a drive through Switzerland without mountain roads. Although autumn has been steadily moving over Europe, the day we headed to Meiringen the last of summer was making a show of its farewells with clear blue skies, sunny temperatures that never got too hot, really just perfect, perfect hiking weather.
Meiringen is in the German part of Switzerland, which means somewhere before Berne I go from being able to read and understand all the roadsigns to suddenly not, and in restaurants I'm once again reduced to placing my orders in English. Not that I was required for navigation, actually I spent most of the drive asleep. I woke up just as we got to Meiringen close to noon and we knew we were at the right place because there in the square beside the main road was a statue of the great detective himself. Then there was the hotel Sherlock Holmes, a London Baker Street sign ... all right, Meiringen, we get the picture, you have a claim to international literary fame. After parking the car we found coffee and a patisserie to buy a packed lunch, and then my friend and I made a beeline for the Sherlock Holmes statue. Because of course we were taking photos with one of our heroes of English literature.
The Reichenbachfalls themselves are to the west of Meiringen, and you can hike all the way up, or, if time or effort are wanting, take the furnicular. In the interest of time we chose the latter, and very soon found ourselves halfway up the mountain and at the foot of the falls.
In The Final Problem Dr. John Watson described the falls as "a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamor." In the story Holmes and Watson visit the falls in May, so springtime when the falls would be swollen with snow-melt. For us coming at the end of October and beginning of autumn, the waterfall was reduced in strength but certainly still powerful. Just as Holmes and Watson (or rather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) did on their visit, we "stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss." And then took photos.
The hiking path goes up to the right of the falls to the falls' upper tier. At that time of year it's a wonderful walk under autumn-gold foliage, and we made our way up and around to the other side of the falls where "[t]he path has been cut half-way round the fall to afford a complete view, but it ends abruptly, and the traveler has to return as he came." At the end of the path you can look all the way into the bottom of the falls where Moriarty lies, and indeed there is a plaque on the cliff placed by the Reichenbach Irregulars of Switzerland that says in German, French and English, "At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891." Close by in a little nook I found a wreath laid by an ardent fan for Holmes's fictional century birthday. My friends and I took more photos not just of the plaque but at the end of the path pretending to be Holmes and Moriarty locked in a fight to the death. Only when we had all had a turn did we continue the rest of the way down the mountain, eventually walking trough the lush fields of various Swiss farmers (this is perfectly allowed as long as you stay on the marked path, and are polite and considerate closing any gates behind you to make sure the cows/goats/sheep don't escape) and back towards Meiringen.
Meiringen has more to hike through than just Reichenbachfalls. The other big attraction there is a gorge that was carved out by glaciers in the last ice age. Part of it is narrow enough to force some people to walk sideways, but afterwards it widens out to an impressive and deep ravine a nearly two kilometres long. We walked the entire length of the ravine there and back, which didn't take that long even with frequent photo stops. Interestingly there are wooden boxes placed at regular intervals along the route that say in German, French and Italian, 'Open In Event Of War'(!). Historically in the Second World War the gorge was used as an Allies arms depot, and in the 21st century rumour has it that should Switzerland ever be invaded by land the Swiss armed forces can be ready to defend and/or blow up all the mountain passes at a moment's notice. Most of the wooden boxes were firmly locked, but the ones left unlocked were unfortunately empty. At the end of the ravine we found a cow-field half of which was being used as a landing site for para-gliders launching themselves off the nearest mountain. We watched them float down through the sky like so many colourful dandelion seeds and land on the green grass watched by a small herd of cows, whose bells around their neck jangled softly as they chewed.
Even after a waterfall and a ravine, there was still plenty of light left in the day. Upon returning to the car we decided to add one more stop to our day-trip, namely the Grand Hotel Giessbach at Lake Brienz. It takes some getting to as the only access is either by a boat across the lake then a furnicular, or coming down the mountain behind the hotel which unless you're a guest only takes you so far, as beyond a certain point cars aren't allowed. We did the latter, parked at the gates, and from there proceeded on foot. There was another waterfall even grander than Reichenbach with four tiers - and there at its foot was the Grand Hotel. Perched on the mountainside in red and white against the blue sky and autumn-green mountains that in a few weeks will turn white with snow, looking west over the lake and sunset. It's all ridiculously picturesque and Swiss and romantic, and the four of us took photographs until our batteries were in serious danger of running out (mine did). Despite not really being dressed for such a place we got a table on the terrace and ordered some beers and food (or dessert, in my case, a Meiringen meringue with homemade ice-cream and fruit wasn't to be missed), relaxing as we watched one of the most beautiful mountain sunsets I've ever seen.