MEIRINGEN, Switzerland (Reuters) - High on a bleak Alpine crag, a large white X marks a world-famous spot which draws tourists and their cameras from literally the four corners of the earth.
As it slides to a halt after a 5-minute climb from the valley below, travelers leap from the cable car pointing lenses through a mist of spray at the site of an unarmed combat to-the-death in 1891 between two determined men.
After gazing fearfully at the churning white abyss below, and taking more shots of the roaring cascade plunging from above, visitors scramble up a steep path and round the towering rock on a further 20-minute hike to get a closer look at the bridge near where the fateful encounter took place.
Or at least - for this is the Reichenbach Falls — where British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said it did.
“Without Sherlock Holmes, we might just be known for our beautiful scenery,” says Nils Glatthard, a native of Meiringen where the great detective stayed before starting the climb (no cable car then) to face his arch-foe and master criminal Professor Moriarty on a narrow path overlooking the Falls.
And certainly Holmes, whom his creator sent tumbling to his death clutching Moriarty into the foaming cauldron beneath, is ubiquitous in this small and not-quite-picturesque crossroads town of some 5,000 people in central Switzerland.
There is the inevitable Sherlock Holmes Hotel, up a quiet avenue under shady trees, a Sherlock nightclub adorned with a genuine-looking “221b Baker Street” address sign under a chalet gable, and posters galore with the detective’s image.
The town bookshop is well-stocked with editions in several languages, including Japanese, of the 56 stories and four novels in which Holmes starred with his constant companion, Dr Watson.
But last week they had just run out of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” - the volume containing “The Adventure of the Final Problem” in which, writing in 1893, Conan Doyle killed the detective off — only to be forced by public pressure to resurrect him 10 years later.
“There is really quite a demand,” says a young assistant. “Even local people like to read these books in English.”
At the center of Meiringen’s Sherlock cult is “Conan Doyle Square” near the railway station where Holmes and Watson alighted — as in real life did the author and his wife on a visit in early 1893 which clearly gave him the idea of how and where to rid himself of a hero of whom he had tired.
On the main street at the edge of the square, a life-size bronze figure of the detective in the familiar deerstalker hat and enveloping cloak, thought up by Conan Doyle’s illustrator Sidney Piaget, and smoking his equally familiar pipe sits on a flat rock in deep meditation.
Across the square stands a brick and wood-framed chapel with a golden spire, dubbed the “English Church” at the end of the 19th century and catering at the time for a community large enough to justify an almost permanent Anglican priest.
The basement of the chapel houses Meiringen’s Sherlock Holmes Museum, the focus for occasional pilgrimages in full period garb by members of the London-based Sherlock Holmes Society and by fan groups from other countries.
A portrait of Conan Doyle and a large reproduction of Piaget’s classic portrayal of Holmes and Moriarty in their death struggle greet visitors on the staircase down into a small gallery with cases full of mementoes, manuscripts and photographs and postcards of the time.
Behind is the living room, lovingly reconstituted from Conan Doyle’s own scant descriptions and Piaget’s illustrations, at 221b Baker Street where Holmes lived and where his cases often opened as his housekeeper Mrs Hudson ushered in a new client.
A Stradivarius violin, playing which was the detective’s favorite relaxation, lies on a chair.
How far has the Holmes canon really penetrated local culture in Meiringen, some 100 km (62 miles) south east of the Swiss capital Bern.
Glatthard, who now heads the tourism body for the Haslital region stretching from Lake Brienz to the west up to the Grimsell Pass east of the town, was ambivalent.
“We certainly didn’t come across him at school,” he said of Holmes. “At least, not until I had to turn out with some of my friends in scout uniforms for a visit by the Holmes Society.”
His colleague Christine Flueck from the nearby lakeside village of Brienz says she had hardly heard of the great detective until she came to Meiringen as a tour guide.
But a middle-aged lady in local costume who sells the tickets and takes the wheel of one of the Reichenbach cable cars expressed pride in the link to the sleuth.
“It gives me a real thrill when people from countries like Brazil and Russia come here talking about him,” she says.
Editing by Paul Casciato