Tamara Hinson meets marmots and treads in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes along the Via Alpina in Switzerland.
Mountains are my happy place – I'll take snow-capped peaks over beaches any day. That's why I jumped at the chance to conquer a stretch of the Via Alpina – the 20-stage, 390-kilometre hiking route which winds across six Swiss cantons and 14 alpine passes. The stage I'm tackling meanders through the Bernese Alps, starting in Engstlenalp and finishing in Meiringen, a small town famous for its connections with Sherlock Holmes.
I spend the night before my hike at Hotel Engstlenalp, nestled at one end of a steep valley. The walls are covered with photos of alpine life in the early twentieth century. The hotel dates back to 1892 and rooms are wonderfully rustic, with flower-adorned ceramic bowls instead of sinks, and pastel blue shutters instead of curtains. In the reception area, there's a rubber stamp with which those who've conquered this particular stretch of the route can mark their Via Alpina passport. The lobby is a colourful tangle of walking sticks and discarded hiking boots.
I discover that a handful of my fellow guests are schwingers – alpine wrestlers. They're here to compete in a nearby championship, so the next day I rise early for a spot of schwingen, a traditional form of wrestling with deep connections to Switzerland's alpine areas. Unlike today's wrestlers, competitors wear leather, not lycra. Leather breeches (known as schwingerhosen) are worn with belts which double as handholds for wrestlers. To win, a wrestler must throw their opponent with enough force to ensure that both shoulders touch the ground.
I nab a spot next to the grassy meadow doubling as the main arena. Bouts take place on small circles of sand poured onto the grass. During breaks, wrestlers take thirsty gulps from the wooden trough-style fountains normally used by cattle. Local children scramble up the hillside, lugging crates of beer and doling out liquid refreshment to parched spectators. It's all wonderfully friendly - there are no WWF-style jibes, and the prize is a cow, not cash. After every round, competitors dust the sand off each other's shoulders as a sign of friendship.
I don't know who bagged the bovine, because it's time to begin my hike. The Via Alpina route starts with a steep ascent along a narrow ridge winding its way towards Tannalp, a tiny hamlet. It's not for the faint-hearted, and our guide tuts wearily as a mountain biker flies past us. He tells the group that a cyclist died recently after tumbling off this particularly steep section. We press on, through flower-bombed alpine meadows filled with clusters of bright blue gentians.
After skirting the edge of Lake Tannensee, I begin my second ascent towards the Balmeregghorn mountain ridge. For lunch, we sprawl on a boulder and use Swiss army knives to hack away at wedges of cheese and strips of beef jerky. While we eat, we're watched by local cows and the soundtrack of their clanging bells. It's certainly one of the most spectacular lunch spots I've eaten in. In the distance, I spot the Trift glacier and the Jungfrau region, and every so often a curious marmot emerges from a hidden burrow.
Soon it's time to hit the Via Alpina trail once more. Patches of snow – despite the early August warmth – are a reminder that I'm 2,200 metres above sea level. This part of the trail has several downhill sections, and the thin, boulder-strewn path requires full concentration. My confidence takes a beating when, seconds after conquering a particularly tough section, a cyclist bounces breezily past. At one point I glance to my right and spot the sparkling Lake Melchsee, far below. On its banks is the sprawling Frutt Lodge & Spa hotel, where I'll spend the night. It's clearly visible, but so far away that it's actually in a different canton. There are still several kilometres of steep, rocky terrain between me and my finish point.
Another hour of intense concentration later I arrive at a gondola which whisks me back to civilisation. I arrive at the town of Meiringen, which has several claims to fame. My favourite is that it's the birthplace of meringues. The accolade dates back to the 1700s when a local chef whipped leftover sugar and eggs into fluffy white peaks and named his creation after the town.
The next day, I scale a different type of peak, with the help of the tiny funicular which takes me to the base of the beautiful Reichenbach Falls. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular visitor to Meiringen and gave the waterfalls a starring role in one of his most famous stories. In The Final Problem, Holmes and Moriarty plunge over the edge of the waterfall after a fight.
Back in the town centre, I stumble across Conan Doyle Place, marked with a London-style signpost bearing the words "Borough of Meiringen". There's a statue of a pipe-smoking Holmes, metres from the Sherlock Holmes Museum (complete with a replica of his Baker Street living room).
Nearby, next to a statue depicting bronze hikers marching up a wedge of granite, an information board reveals that this part of Switzerland once had more mountain guides than anywhere else in the Alps. This is partly because Meiringen was the birthplace of Melchior Anderegg, who became the country's first certified alpine guide in 1856. Looking at pictures of Anderegg, who made first ascents of several peaks over 4,000 metres, suggests that back then top hats, bow ties and tobacco pipes were must-have accessories for any self-respecting mountain climber. Suddenly my meander along the Via Alpina seems rather tame.
Top image: Reichenbach Falls, Swiss Alps © Natalia Budianska/Shutterstock