|Dr. Dan in Meiringen with the John Doubleday statue of the Master|
Following the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is not always easy, especially when it takes you off the printed page, out of the easy chair, and up the side of a mountain in Switzerland.
My Sherlockian friend Steve Winter and I, along with our supportive spouses, crossed the Atlantic to visit the Reichenbach Falls (after a six-day pizza and pasta prelude in Italy) on October 12 and 13, 2008. In booking our hotel and train reservations months before, we didn’t realize that the Falls and the funicular taking visitors up the mountain would be shut down for the season starting on October 5. Not least for that reason, our pilgrimage to the site of Holmes’s fatal encounter with Professor Moriarty was an unforgettable adventure.
We arrived in early afternoon at Meiringen, the Swiss town at the foot of the Falls where Holmes and Watson had stayed. The clerk at our hotel, the beautiful and ultra-modern Victorian, assured us that the funicular and the Falls were both still running. Our excitement mounted. This was not what we had been told in an e-mail two weeks before by Rudolf Soltermann of EWR Energie AG / Reichenbachfall-Bahn. He had informed us, to our disappointment, “The cable car is closed from October 5th till spring and from mid October the Reichenbachfalls have no water.” He did add the hopeful note, “In autumn, when it’s not raining, it’s still good for hiking.”
Immediately after lunch at our hotel (our first order of business in town – hamburgers for four) we realized that we were right across the street from both the bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes smoking meditatively in a seated position and the Sherlock Holmes Museum. The statue was created by John Doubleday and erected in 1988. A plaque next to it, proclaiming SHERLOCK HOLMES HONORARY CITIZEN OF MEIRINGEN, informed us that the artwork included clues to all sixty Sherlock Holmes stories. Among the four of us, we identified . . . none. We couldn’t even find the clues.
Barb Winter popped into the Sherlock Holmes Museum and came back with a report. “I have the news, and it’s not good,” she said. In fact, the Falls and the funicular were not running. Oddly, it had turned out that the man in charge of the funicular knew more about it than the clerk at our hotel.
No matter. Steve Winter, a man who habitually travels with a backpack and a Swiss army knife, wanted to hike the mountain up to the site of the non-running Falls immediately. It wasn’t raining, and apparently Steve’s energy levels were undiminished by an adventurous morning that had included the theft of a purse in Italy and the loss and recovery of a carry-on bag in Switzerland.
Barb further learned, however, that the Sherlock Holmes Museum would be closed the next day, a Monday. Since we were only going to be in Meiringen slightly more than 24 hours, we decided we would have to put off hiking for a day in order to visit the Museum.
No true Sherlockian would find it coincidental, still less inappropriate, that the museum is located in a former English church. This was, after all, a kind of shrine. The upstairs of the building is given over to art exhibitions, the bottom to Sherlockiana. The museum is delightful but rather small, highlighted by a painstaking reconstruction of the hallowed sitting room at 221 B Baker Street. It is behind glass, like the one at the Sherlock Holmes Pub in London, but claims to be the most authentic reproduction of the Baker Street lair in that everything is authentically Victorian, no reproductions. We bought a few Sherlockian souvenirs, but I was surprised how few were available. Barb suspected this was a factor of being at the end of the season.
The museum is owned by the adjacent Park du Sauvage Hotel, widely recognized – and proudly proclaimed by the hotel itself – to be the original of the Englischer Hof where Holmes and Watson stayed in “The Final Problem.” In fact, the Park du Sauvage proclaims in English right in front:
IN THIS HOTEL, CALLED BY SIR ARTHUR
CONAN DOYLE THE
MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DR. WATSON
SPENT THE NIGHT OF 3RD/ 4TH MAY 1891.
IT WAS FROM HERE THAT MR. HOLMES LEFT
FOR THE FATAL ENCOUNTER AT THE
REICHENBACH FALLS WITH PROFESSOR
MORIARTY, THE NAPOLEON OF CRIME.
Clearly, Meiringen makes no mystery of the Holmes connection. This is a town where one can also buy Sherlock Holmes fondue and drink at a pub (or perhaps it’s a private club) called simply “Sherlock” in bright red letters with a London street sign on the side of the building. Our attempt to dine at the Park du Sauvage, however, was stymied by a policy that their dining room is open for guests only, although there is a separate restaurant on the grounds. We had dinner that night instead at Das Hotel Sherlock Holmes, marked on all sides by a wonderful silhouette of the great man’s head and an artistic lettering in which the “l” of “Hotel” is also the “l” of “Sherlock” in the line below. The meals, and the Swiss beer, were quite good. For dessert there was meringue, topped by whipped cream and ice cream. Meringue was invented at Meiringen, and they do it very well.
After dinner, we strolled and window shopped our way back toward our hotel. Swiss army knives apparently are widely available in Switzerland. Who knew? I also spotted some German-language Sherlock Holmes books in the window of a bookstore, one of which I was able to buy the next day at the last minute before boarding our train. We wound up inside the Park du Savauge, intending just to gawk. Instead, we bought more souvenirs, mostly for friends. The very nice clerk asked where we were from. “Cincinnati!” he exclaimed. “Every year I am going to Cincinnati!” He explained that he had a friend there who formerly lived on Clifton Avenue – the very street on which reside our friends the Senters, for whom we were buying a Sherlockian keychain! The world gets smaller all the time.
“Anybody can go to the Falls when it’s running,” Barb said the next day at breakfast. I took her point. It would be quite a distinction to travel several thousand miles to see where the Falls weren’t. We were bracing ourselves for the task with a hearty breakfast. We had an impressive array of choices in whatever quantity we chose – cereals, yogurts, pastries, Nutella, cheese, salami, juice and varieties of coffee.
The plan after breakfast was for Steve and me to hike to the site of the Falls, with Barb and Ann accompanying us part of the way before they peeled off to concentrate on the arduous task of shopping. This was a prospect I faced with some misgivings – the hiking, I mean, although I had misgiving about the shopping, too. My concern was based in part on reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s autobiography, Memories and Adventures. In one of the most well known passages of that book, Sir Arthur wrote of determining to end the life of his hero in order to devote more time to what he mistakenly considered his more serious work:
The idea was in my mind when I went with my wife for a short holiday in Switzerland, in the course of which we saw there the wonderful falls of Reichenbach, a terrible place and one that I thought would make a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him. So there I laid him, fully determined that he should stay there – as indeed for some years he did.
The death and resurrection of Sherlock Holmes set a pattern followed in succeeding years by an astonishing number of heroic figures in popular culture. Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, and Superman all in some sense died or disappeared only to return to the living unscathed. In films, such disparate characters as the indestructible James Bond and the incompetent Inspector Clousseau survived their own funerals. The major difference in the case of the greatest of them all is that even his creator was surprised by the return of Sherlock Holmes.
And no wonder. No one who saw the Reichenbach at the peak of its might would readily imagine that a person – even Holmes! – could fall into that and re-emerge alive. Bear in mind, however, that the closest I have come to seeing the Reichenbach at the peak of its might was on DVD. Two weeks before our departure for Europe, I watched again the Jeremy Brett interpretation of “The Final Problem.” I had two strong reactions to watching the fatal encounter of Holmes and Moriarty above the Falls: That looks scary was quickly followed by Are we really going to go there?
We really went there.
But on that fall morning, off in the distance from a point close to our hotel, the Falls looked more like the Reichenbach Trickle than the awesome force of nature described by Watson and showed to us by Granada Television. No matter. We set off with determination on the Fussweg, or footpath, well marked (at least at first) with signs bearing the universally recognized image of Sherlock Holmes. Along the way our wives fell back and Steve and I hiked on past cows, goats, and Swiss chalets with satellite dishes. Without the funicular “Zum Reichenbachfall,” which marked “100 Jahre” in 1999, we had a delightful sense that we were walking more closely in the footsteps of Holmes and Watson than if we had taken the cable car much of the way up.
About two-thirds toward the top of the mountain, within site of the Falls, we unexpectedly came across yet another plaque. In English, followed by German and then French, it said:
AT THIS FEARFUL PLACE,
MORIARTY ON 4 MAY 1891
It had been erected in the 1990s by the Bimetallic Question of Montreal and the Reichenbach Irregulars of Switzerland, and not arbitrarily. The spot certainly fit the description of where Holmes and Moriarty tussled, just above a ledge now protected with a metal railing. Heights not being my favorite thing, it was to me indeed a “fearful place.” Even the intrepid Steve told me later that he could imagine the fear and awe that one would have felt looking down into the chasm when the Falls were cascading over the jutting rocks at full force – especially in the days before funiculars, safety rails and well marked trails.
By this time, it was clear that the view from below had been deceiving. In October, virtually shut off by the diversion of water in order to provide hydroelectric power, the mighty Reichenbach is still a lot more than a trickle. In another context, with lower expectations, it would be considered a respectable waterfall. “The Falls, even now, are quite loud,” I wrote in my travel diary as we stood on a bridge overlooking the great chasm and the cascading water. And their roar was the only sound to be heard in the stillness of nature that fall morning. Steve and I had seen no one else, except for a distant hiker that never came close to us. “This really was a pilgrimage for two,” Steve said as we began our descent about two and a half hours after we had started up.
A pilgrimage it certainly was. For all the major world religions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu – the pilgrimage is an ancient and meaningful practice for believers. It’s easy for me to see why. Actually going to a sacred or important place, sometimes in the face of inconvenience or even difficulties, is much different from experiencing it second-hand. That’s why people go to rock concerts, baseball games, political rallies and papal Masses when they could see the event much better on television or streaming video. It’s why we made the somewhat convoluted trip to the Reichenbach Falls. And having been there, I will never read “The Final Problem” quite the same way again.