Sherlock’s Cheeky Switzerland

A century-old church in the Swiss Alps has a surprising basement. Down a tight stairway, past a plate of bullets and a bent fireplace poker, ancient Afghan swords hang as décor. It’s all purposefully dark. That helps disguise any tobacco stains left by the chain-smoking inhabitants. 

Meiringen’s Sherlock Holmes Museum is fascinating—and pretty funny. Here, in the wee basement of the town’s terra-cotta-roofed English Church, one finds a faithful replica of Holmes and Dr. Watson’s living room from 221B Baker Street.

It’s a convincing peek into Victorian London, right down to the audible clip-clop of horses passing by the window, Sherlock’s Inverness cape draped over a chair, and a black felt hat the detective wore, the museum informs us seriously, “on at least 22 occasions.” His famed double-billed deerstalker hat is here, too.

Why is all this in central Switzerland?

Because this is the ultimate pilgrimage site for Sherlock fans. Literally. In the story “The Final Problem,” Sherlock (along with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty) plunged to his death at Reichenbach Falls just outside town. 

(Spoiler alert: It didn’t last. Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had a change of heart a couple years later and resurrected his famous detective for yet more adventures.)

Meiringen is a nice place, filling a tight valley dotted with waterfalls and high-up hikes. It’s at the end of a railway spur, halfway between Interlaken and Lucerne, making it an easy day trip from either city.

I’m here for just half a day. A short walk from the train station, at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Place, no less, I spot ten illustrated panels recounting Sherlock’s fateful visit and follow them inside the steepled museum. A lively gray-haired local sells me a combo ticket for the museum and falls (11 Swiss francs, or about U.S. $12) and we chat about all this Sherlock stuff that’s overtaken her town of 4,500 in the canton of Bern.

“I like Sherlock Holmes, yes. He’s important for us,” she says, pausing. “But I like my gallery more.”

The church chapel now hosts a series of blurrily artful photographs a local has made. I breeze past it, but I am here for the detective, after all, so I begin the small museum’s entertaining audio tour. At designated stops, I press a button and a lip-smacking English voice comes on to briskly explain what I’m seeing.

Opened on May 4, 1991—the very centennial of Sherlock’s fall—the museum curators clearly took great satisfaction in adding details of the period, like hatboxes, skis, satchels, and an old blade a London bobby would use “for removing putty from window glazing.”

Next to a framed certificate of citizenship the town awarded to Sherlock, a tiny portrait of a stern-looking man wearing a wig fit for parliament stares at me. I read that it’s Anthony D. Howlett, the “initiator and advisor” for the museum and a former “Remembrancer of the City of London.” (One of his duties, the sign tells us, was ensuring “no one infringes on [London]’s age-old rights and privileges.”)

I realize that I’m sort of entering another world. Part historical, part literary, and part theater of the absurd. The tour wraps up with a plaque conceding that Sherlock, indeed, was “a man who never lived, but today is more real than many who did.”

Then I look for meringue.

It’s said, though not always convincingly, that Meiringen is the birthplace, and namesake, of meringue. Several local bakeries and restaurants are certainly happy to embrace the legend, whipping up egg whites into various sweet concoctions with proud gusto. I opt against the fancier sit-down versions—which run ten or more Swiss francs—and go with a palm-sized chocolate meringue for just half a franc instead.

I take it to go as I’m en route to the famous falls, which I reach after a 15-minute walk in the sun. A few years after Doyle (and Holmes, naturally) visited, a cog railway was added to make the trip up less of an ordeal. The ride certainly retains a Victorian air, with cotton curtains on open windows. The kids of the Italian-speaking family who butted past me in the tiny line let out calls of wonder as we chug down the elevated track above rushing torrents below.

After a few minutes, the train stops at a tiny station just short of the top of the falls. Full water droplets hit me as I take in the roar and begin the short, steep hike up toward a bridge that spans the frightful chasm. There I stand above gullies of carved-out rock as the water bends by and dips out of sight. No one could ever survive that fall, I think. Not even Robert Downey, Jr.

gasthaus villa catches my eye, and I make a climb for it. A handful of people are eating and drinking beer on picnic tables overlooking the full valley. I stop for a sandwich of cheese and ham fanned out like a winning poker hand between heavily buttered slices of black bread. I wonder, Why don’t Americans make sandwiches like that?

Revived, I return to the falls and realize I missed the station’s small sitting room before. I peek in and find a tiny pre-flat-screen TV in a corner, playing a loop of possibly the worst reenactment ever recorded, in which actors in Holmesian costumes exit a 21st-century van, ride the train up, and flip open their capes with bravado. The video ends with a couple of dummies being tossed over the wall. I sit and watch this short “Zumstein/Huggler Film” twice, absolutely delighted.

I didn’t know what to expect from a quick Holmes detour. But it’s ended up as yet another reminder that all this—detective fiction, a day’s hike, travel itself—is something best not taken too seriously. It ought to be fun first, right?

Celebrated travel writer Robert Reid is National Geographic’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.