Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Notorious Reichenbach Falls - Impressions #23

From Brienz, a short train ride of 20 minutes took me to the small town of Meiringen, just a bit large than Brienz, with 3 churches instead of one. It lays right in the center of a long, narrow valley through which flows a stream that eventually flows into Brienzersee. Several waterfalls cascading down the valley walls feed into this stream. The most dramatic and notorious is the Reichenbach Falls. I took part of the day to walk from Meiringen to the base of the Falls, and then hike and climb up the mountainside, to the top of the Falls.

At one point the path splits and a short spur heads off to the right about 100 yards, where it comes to an abrupt end, dropping into the abyss of the falls. It used to extend about another 150 feet. But it has gradually eroded away. One hundred and twenty years ago Arthur Conan Doyle stood on the spot roughly 150 feet ahead of me and this is what he saw.

"It was on the third of May that we reached the little village of Meiringen, where we put up at the Englischer Hof. then kept by Peter Steiler the elder. Our landlord was an intelligent man and spoke excellent English, having served for three years as waiter at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. At his advice, on the afternoon of the fourth we set off together, with the intention of crossing the hills and spending the night at the hamlet of Rosenlaui. We had strict injunctions, however, on no account to pass the falls of Reichenbach, which are about halfway up the hills, without making a small detour to see them.

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. 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 clamour. 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." - The Final Problem -

In fact, in the story, Conan Doyle created a kind of composite. He describes the path and the view of the waterfall accurately. But the view he describes is a much closer match to what you see several hundred feet above this point. So, after sitting on a rock by the side of that plaque for a few minutes and absorbing the gravity of the moment, I turned back and rejoined the main path towards the top of the Falls. I soon reached a point where I found the view he described, the water "hurling itself ... into the boiling pit of incalculable depth".

This upper part of the falls consists of a series of pools. Some can be seen, but others are deep inside the mountain and all there is to be seen is the water disappearing over a lip of rock, falling into blackness. Here and there a trickle of sunlight slips between a crack in the rocks and reflects off of the hidden pools, making a glimmer of light emerge from the dark.

- the pools stepping back up the hillside -

"In a tingle of fear I was already running down the village street, and making for the path which I had so lately descended. It had taken me an hour to come down. For all my efforts two more had passed betore I found myself at the fall of Reichenbach once more. There was Holmes's Alpine-stock still leaning against the rock by which I had left him. But there was no sign of him, and it was in vain that I shouted. My only answer was my own voice reverberating in a rolling echo from the cliffs around me.

It was the sight of that Alpine-stock which turned me cold and sick. He had not gone to Rosenlaui, then. He had remained on that three-foot path, with sheer wall on one side and sheer drop on the other, until his enemy had overtaken him. The young Swiss had gone too. He had probably been in the pay of Moriarty and had left the two men together. And then what had happened? Who was to tell us what had happened then?" - The Final Problem

"The blackish soil is kept forever soft by the incessant drift of spray, and a bird would leave its tread upon it. Two lines of footmarks were clearly marked along the farther end of the path, both leading away from me. There were none returning. A few yards from the end the soil was all ploughed up into a patch of mud, and the brambles and ferns which fringed the chasm were torn and bedraggled. I lay upon my face and peered over with the spray spouting up all around me. It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shouted; but only that same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears." -The Final Problem

"A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains. An examination by experts leaves little doubt that a personal contest between the two men ended, as it could hardly fail to end in such a situation, in their reeling over, locked in each other's arms. Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation." - The Final Problem

Look closely at the photo above. You will see a chalet at the top. This marks the point where the road to Rosenlaui passes above the top of the falls and heads into the mountains. This being Switzerland, of course, once you've made the difficult and exhausting hike up the mountainside, and faced the drama and tragedy of the Reichenbach Falls, you are greeted by a chalet where you can order a lunch of perfectly prepared spaetzle with emmentaler cheese and tomato slices on the side, followed by a dessert of hot chocolate and a pastry, while sitting on a terrace and enjoying the view below.

Looking ahead to another long walk in the afternoon, along the Aareschlucht (see next post), I decided to take the easy way back down and hopped on the funicular railway, which got me back down to Meiringen in about 20 minutes. Incidentally, Meiringen became such a tourist attraction to the English, after the 1891 publication of "The Final Problem", that an Anglican priest moved to the town and started a church. That church is now a Sherlock Holmes museum, a sort of a church to the patron saint of scientific rationality. In 1991, on the 100th anniversary of Holmes' death, on the occasion of the church becoming a museum, Conan Doyle's daughter attended the event and cut the ribbon.

1 comment:

  1. "a church to the patron saint of scientific rationality" - I love it.

    How cool that you got to go on a literary pilgrimage in the path of Sherlock Holmes. How very cool!

    Beautiful photos too. Are you going to paint one of these scenes?

    I envy you the spaetzle...