Basel – Amazing City on the Rhine
We spent the first two days of our visit to Switzerland in the city of Geneva, home to many international institutions including the United Nations, Red Cross and World Trade Organization. It is now time to move on to another great Swiss city. Basel is often overlooked as a tourist destination because it is not alpine or located on a beautiful lake like Geneva or Lucerne. This is a huge mistake because it is definitely worth taking the time to spend a few days here. Read this post to find out why.
In the last post I commented upon the seamless and super efficient transportation system in and around Geneva. Now Alison and I will find out if that extends to the national rail system. Thanks to Laura Fairweather at the Canadian Swiss Tourism office we have a first class Swiss Travel Pass which we will use to get from Geneva to Basel. Checking the schedule on line I see there are departures from the Cornavin station in Geneva every 30 minutes and that it will take just under three hours to get to Basel. One thing that makes me a bit nervous is that we need to switch trains at Biel/Bienne and that we have only six minutes to make the transfer. However, even if we miss it it will only be thirty minutes until the next train arrives.
We check out of our hotel around ten and walk the short distance to the train station. The train we want arrives exactly when it is scheduled to and leaves exactly on time to the very minute. The interior of the train is very clean with comfortable seating and tables. I have printed copies of the Swiss Travel Passes as well as digital copies on the iPhone. A conductor asks to see the passes and our passports to verify that they match. This is the only time we were asked for passports and it was hit or miss on future train journeys if you would be asked to produce your pass. After a pleasant ride along the north shore of Lake Geneva and then Lake Neuchatel we arrive at Biel/Bienne which has two names because it sits on the dividing line between the French and German speaking areas of Switzerland. We need not have worried about the six minute transfer time as once again the trains arrived and departed exactly on time. We pulled into the immense neo-Baroque Basel SBB railway station and within minutes were on our way to our hotel which was within walking distance. I had a printed Google map with the directions to the Steinenschanze Hotel where we would stay for two nights.
This is the view of the Basel SBB station as we headed out on foot with map in hand. Big mistake. Unlike Geneva where everything was on one level so a two-dimensional map worked just fine, in Basel there are highways on three different levels as the lands slopes down to the Rhine River. The map proved useless as I couldn’t tell which street was which. After wandering around fruitlessly for half an hour someone noticed our perplexity and offered directions which unfortunately didn’t help. A second offer from another couple who actually walked us to the proper street finally worked. So my advice for anyone thinking of walking from the train station to a nearby hotel is ‘Don’t. Take a cab instead.
Like the Hotel D in Geneva I chose the Steinenschanze Hotel in Basel based upon Trip Advisor reviews. It was close to the train station, but also close to the medieval centre of the city. Upon arrival we were greeted warmly with a complimentary glass of wine and shown to our room. The hotel is a contemporary boutique with quite large rooms.
One very interesting feature was a modern version of a vinyl disk record player along with about a dozen LP’s.
Breakfast was a nice buffet that we ate in the outdoor area shown above. It was also a great place for a pre-dinner glass of wine which was also complimentary.
We arrived in Basel on a Sunday and knew that in Switzerland most businesses including many restaurants are closed. We asked the lady at the front desk about a place to have dinner and she provided us with directions to get to the historic part of the city, but seemed doubtful that anything would be open. We decided to go anyway.
Only a block from the hotel you come to this stylized sculpture of St. George and the Dragon. It is atop a staircase that leads directly down into old town.
Descending the stairs was like entering an entirely different city. Everything in the upper part is modern, while everything below, with a few exceptions, is hundreds of years old. Unlike Old Town Geneva where there were few tourists and a generally stolid atmosphere reminiscent of its Calvinist roots, medieval Basel was literally packed with people. Most were families and local as far as I could tell. Any worries about finding a restaurant were quickly dispelled as there were dozens to choose from, although almost other businesses were closed. We had a decent if not memorable meal at a hamburger joint and then began exploring Basel.
What follows is an amalgam of a day and a half exploring Basel, but let’s have a little history lesson first.
History of Basel
Basel has a strategic location at a bend in the Rhine River that has been occupied from at least the 5th century BCE, but was not really on the map as it were until the post-Roman period. The Romans were in the area for centuries at a major settlement named Augusta Raurica some 20 kms. (12.5 miles) from modern Basel and you can still visit a well preserved Roman theatre there. It wasn’t until the 7th century that Basel surpassed the old Roman settlement in size and importance and the bishopric was moved to Basel from Augusta Raurica. Even so the place was completely destroyed by invading Magyars in 917 and doesn’t seem to have a had a lot of importance for centuries thereafter which helps explain its unique form of government for the next five hundred years.
In 1032 a small area of modern day Switzerland that included Basel and Bern was designated by the Holy Roman Empire established by Charlemagne as the Prince-Bishopric of Basel. It became a semi-autonomous state that none of the major powers in the area such as France, Burgundy, Savoy and the neighbouring German states seemed to consider worth fighting over. The result was that Basel became a city known for its tolerance and free thinking. The first university in Switzerland was founded there in 1460 and attracted such famous humanists as Erasmus and Paracelsus. In 1501 Basel was asked by the ten then existing Swiss cantons to join them in their federation and accepted. No other Swiss canton ever received such an invitation. So fully three hundred years before Geneva joined the fold, Basel was now part of Switzerland.
Basel became one of the major centres of the Reformation, but does not seem to have succumbed to the rabid intolerance of the Calvinists of Geneva. Instead it became one of the centres of Renaissance humanism. It was renowned for the ground breaking books that were printed there including Vesalius’ publication of the first book on human anatomy. The famous mathematical geniuses that were the Bernoulli family called Basel home as did their distinguished pupil Leonhard Euler. Others of note who made their name in Basel included the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the psychologist Carl Jung.
In the 20th century Basel became a centre of pharmaceutical research and manufacture with over 900 such firms currently employing over 50,000 people. Of note to acid heads is the fact that LSD was first developed in Basel in 1938. More importantly to most tourists is the fact that Basel is the cultural capital of Switzerland with dozens of museums and galleries. I will dedicate a separate post to the Kunstmuseum which is the oldest public art gallery in the world and a must visit site in Basel. So a lot of famous people have trod the streets of this city and now we shall join them.
This is a map of Basel with the old part of the city outlined in blue. You can easily spend well over a day just walking the streets of the Aldstadt and visiting the many interesting sites contained within it. The first stop should be at the Basel tourism office which is right in the middle of the area and pick up a copy of the walking tours brochure. There are five suggested routes and we were able to do all of them during our stay in Basel.
Rather than following any definitive route I’ll start by hitting the highlights starting with the wonderful Rathaus.
One of the most remarkable buildings to be found in many northern Renaissance cities is the rathaus or town hall and in Basel’s case their’s is simply a marvel to behold. Dating back over 500 years it has a distinct reddish hue that makes it stand out from all the other buildings fronting on the Markplatz (market Square). It demands that you look for the many architectural details that make it unique. This relatively new addition commemorates Basel’s entry into the Swiss union in 1501 with the words that translate to “Here is where Switzerland Begins.” This is literally true as the city lies almost at the borders where Switzerland, Germany and France meet. There are suburbs of Basel in both France and Germany.
You’d never know it without being told, but this wing in neo-Gothic style with plenty of art nouveau inspiration dates from only 1901.
The very top of the Basel Rathaus looks almost too fanciful to be real.
Then there is the gold plated spire that fairly gleams in the sunlight.
Although the building is not open for tourists as it the seat not only of the city of Basel government, but also that of the canton as well. However, you can go into the huge entrance foyer which is a riot of colour and carving as you can see from the photo below.
Standing guard is this golden-helmeted soldier dating back to 1580. So far he’s done a good job as Swiss neutrality has spared Basel and other Swiss cities the destruction of two world wars.
Close attention to detail reveals this series of carved faces which reminded me of the famous faces of St. James Cathedral in Sibenik, Croatia that I wrote about in this post.
The last thing you can see inside is this wondrously carved wooden door which leads to the interior of the Basel Rathaus. We were here on a Sunday morning so it was locked.
There are tours of the interior on Saturday and this link shows why it is worth showing up to see the even more marvellous things inside the Rathaus.
This is Markplatz which was quiet on a Sunday morning, but the night before was really hopping as this still functions as an open air market much as it has done for hundreds of years.
The other must see building in Basel is the Munster or cathedral which sits on a hill which makes it the prominent landmark of the city. Archaeological studies have determined that it sits on the same spot that once was a fortified Celtic settlement in the first century BCE. It is the third ecclesiastical building on the site and has origins as far back as 1019, but a major earthquake in 1356 destroyed most of the munster. What you see today was completed in 1500 with the consecration of the Martinstower. The Georgtower was finished a little earlier. They are not identical like many two spired churches.
Approaching closer you see this sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon, but the poor thing is so small you feel sorry for it. St. George was definitely not the underdog in this fight.
As it was Sunday there were services about to begin so we didn’t get inside, but that was not as big a deal as it would be for many cathedrals. During the Reformation iconoclastic Protestants stormed the churches of Basel and literally destroyed everything inside they could lay their hands on. We saw the interior dreariness of much of St. Peter’s cathedral in Geneva and from what I can gather Basel Munster is no different. However, that does not mean there are no interesting things to see.
These are the Basel Munster cloisters which lead out to a view of other side of city across the Rhine, the Kleinbasel.
At the back of the cloisters is this remarkable metal structure called appropriately enough, Markttisch or market stall by Swiss sculptor Bettina Eichin. It was originally commissioned by the Basel pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, the one that gave us LSD and was intended to be placed in Markplatz. But before it was placed Sandoz had a disastrous fire which led to a huge fish kill in the Rhine River and suddenly the company’s largesse was not so fondly thought of and it ended up here. Sandoz then changed its name to Novartis which you might of heard of. It employs over 110,000 people worldwide.
The work is minutely detailed that you’ll want to take a closer look as I did.
The area around Basel Munster has many fine buildings such as these that front on Munsterplatz.
There are a few stand alone mansions like this one which has the symmetry that the Basel Munster lacks.
This is the oldest part of Basel and on a Sunday morning you might find yourself almost alone walking the medieval cobblestone streets.
This was the oldest house that I could identify in Basel dating all the way back to 1437.
If the Rathaus and the Basel Munster are the two most important buildings in the city, then the Rhine River must be considered its most important natural feature. Basel is located at the farthest point upriver that commercial navigation is feasible and as such it is Switzerland’s only port city. Think about that – a port in Switzerland. Who knew?
In folklore and real history the Rhine is a very romanticized river, perhaps the most in the world with its tales of the Lorelei and the many fairy tale like castles that marks its passage from the Alps to the North Sea. I’ve seen the Rhine in numerous cities before, but never as clear and fast flowing as in Basel. This has led to a phenomenon that is unique to Basel – the Wickelfisch swim. A wickelfisch is an inflatable bag in the form of a fish in which you store your clothes and then use it to help you float downriver for as long as you like. It’s really weird to stand on the banks or one of the bridges and watch the Wickelfischers go by at quite high velocity. Here is a link to a video showing just how it’s done.
Another activity unique to Basel are the four ferries that cross the river using only the speed of the water to propel them. They are attached to a cable that is attached to both sides. In the photo below I managed to capture both the ferry and a Wickelfischer.
This is another view which gives a better idea of how the ferry works. As part of the Basel public transportation system it is included in your Swiss Travel Pass.
This the view of Basel Munster from the Promenade on the Kleinbasel side of the river.
And this is the view from the Mittlere or Middle Bridge. I couldn’t believe the length and low profile of the barge in this photo that allowed it to pass under the bridges of Basel.
A Few Other Things About Basel
Basel has more than enough of what I call ‘the little things’ that often don’t make it into the usual tourist sites like the dog, frog and rose above. It’s just a pleasure to walk around this most liveable and likeable of cities and look for them.
I mentioned in my post on the many reasons to visit Switzerland that the decorative fountains that also double as sources of clean drinking water were a pleasant surprise and Basel does not disappoint. This is a basilisk fountain, a design which dates back to i884. There are a number along the Promenade and 28 all told in the city which has 231 fountains in total. The basilisk which is part reptile and part bird (note the head which looks like a rooster) has a long association with Basel probably based on the similarity of the name.
Here is a much older version. The basilisk is always depicted holding the emblem of the city the Baselstab or Basel Staff which was based on a bishop’s crozier and managed to survive the Reformation. It is seen everywhere in Basel.
There are also fountains that you can climb into on a hot summer day, another tradition almost unique to Basel. In North America climbing into a fountain would get you arrested; in Basel it gets you refreshed.
However the most important fountain is for neither drinking or swimming, but just watching and its relatively new on the scene.
This is the Tinguely Fountain which was created in 1977 by Swiss kinetic art sculptor Jean Tinguely on the site of an old outdoor theatre stage. There are ten separate devices that are propelled by water jets and they interact in such a variety of ways that looking at them you become almost mesmerized. It is one of the most unique works of art I have ever seen and it brings joy to people from 1 to 100.
So Basel is a serious city with a whimsical heart. Look no further than this sign I saw in a used camera store.
In the next post we’ll visit the oldest public art gallery in the world, the Basel Kunstmuseum. I hope your up for viewing some great art.