TRAVEL REVIEW: Swiss Holmes from home

SwissBA'Glacier from the Jungfrau
SwissBA'Glacier from the Jungfrau
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QUEEN Victoria, in the flesh, addressing an adoring crowd in the Swiss resort of Interlaken after parading through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage? How can this be?

Only one man could solve this mystery – step forward Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective who ever lived. Or didn’t live, but don’t say that in front of members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective was a superhero of his time and his methods shaped real-life detective work worldwide.

But, wearying of his creation, the author condemned Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty to plunge to their apparent death in the mighty Reichenbach Falls near Meiringen, Switzerland.

That’s what brought the Sherlock Holmes society, resplendent in their Victorian finery, to Switzerland.

About 70 members attracted huge crowds to admire and photograph their impeccable costume – among them Queen Victoria, Cardinal Tosca, Holmes with magnifying glass and pipe, his sidekick Dr Watson, the evil genius Moriarty and the King of Bohemia.

Their procession through the mountain-ringed resort of Interlaken made an astonishing spectacle, with horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars wheeled out.

With a commendable English stiff upper lip, the men retained their heavy tweed suits and winged collars and the women their flowing robes and lavish hats despite blistering sunshine in the Swiss towns and villages. Later, they were still immaculately turned out up on ‘the roof of Europe’ in the snow of the Jungfrau at 11,000ft above sea level.

A party of journalists were invited along for the ride, staying in Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, an upmarket resort on a narrow strip of land between two lakes, the Brinzersee and the Thunersee.

The scenic little town is surrounded by many of the most impressive peaks of the Alps.

Our first mission had to be the Reichenbach Falls, so we set off by train – almost all our excursions used the comprehensive Swiss rail network – to the town of Meiringen.

This little tourist spot lays claim to being the birthplace of the meringue, but Sherlock Holmes had been too intent on giving Moriarty his just desserts to linger here.

Soon we were off up the precipitous rock face aboard the clanking and rattling Reichenbach Funicular to see the Falls.

Conan Doyle said: “It is indeed 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.”

I’m not going to try to improve on that masterly description.

A star set into the cliff face marks the narrow path on which Holmes and Moriarty fought their final battle. You’d have to have a mountaineer’s head for heights to walk along it.

Energetic walkers setting off from the top funicular station can make it to the head of the falls via several hundred rocky steps and a steep path. It’s a breathtaking hike.

By overwhelming public demand Holmes was restored to life years later, claiming to have made an astonishing escape from the crashing 900ft high waterfall. That’s another mystery we’ll never solve.

Back down at ground level, we caught the lake cruise ship from Brienz back to Interlaken, relaxing in the sunshine in glorious scenery.

But we didn’t stay at ground level for long.

Another ancient and rattling funicular took us up the Harder mountain for dinner and Swiss entertainment at the Harder Klum restaurant.

There a small band played folk music while a woman with an enchanting voice sang, yodelled and, mystifyingly, punctuated her act with odd goat noises.

Work that one out, Holmes.

The next day it was time for the big one. Jungfraujoch, the Roof of Europe, the highest railway station on our continent, at 11,333ft.

This involves the local train through scenic lowlands to Lauterbrunner, the spectacular Wengeralp mountain railway climbing steeply to Kleine Scheidigg and, finally, the Jungfrau railway itself.

Rail pioneer Adolf Guyer Zeller first had the idea of running trains up this towering snow-capped Alp 118 years ago.

It took 18 years to build but it worked. Trundling up a long tunnel through the Eiger mountain, the little train emerges on a snow-covered plateau 2,000ft below the summit of the Jungfrau.

It gives 700,000 visitors a year a breath of the rareified air of the Alpine world and a view of the Aletsch Glacier, where the ice is almost a kilometre deep.

Up there stands the Glacier Restaurant, commanding one of the finest views on earth.

The Alpine Sensation centre features a palace and statues carved out of ice, displays on Swiss life and how the rail tunnel was built, a karst cavern in the rock and the Jungfrau panorama 360-degree cinema experience.

From an aerial walkway out over the void we looked straight down upon ravens wheeling below.

At Kleine Schedigg rail halt I chatted with a man who really knows his railways: Bryan Stone, a former rail passenger manager who was based in Doncaster in the 1960s and now lives in Switzerland.

He was resplendent in heavy tweeds in the role of the Conan Doyle character The English man from the Englisher Hof hotel. Bryan told me that the train ride up the Jungfrau is a rare treat strictly for special occasions for the Swiss – with tickets costing about £130 per person.

Every day is a special occasion with members of the Sherlock Holmes Society. They’re entertaining company, dressing for dinner every night in Victorian splendour.

They’re a cosmopolitan bunch, too, with international members including Akane Higashiyama from Japan, widow of another Holmes enthusiast.

When you see them in costume in the airport, carrying heavy leather Victorian suitcases, you’re tempted to ask why they do it.

But once you’ve seen them socialising in the grand old manner, it’s elementary, Watson.

The magic of Switzerland is no mystery. It’s one of those rare places that is all you hoped it would be.