My Favorite International Cities - #9 Basle, Switzerland
First published November 17, 2021 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
Basel/Basle (German/French) is a small, elegant and famous city nestled along both shores of the Rhine River bordering France and Germany as the river enters Switzerland from the north. The city has a long history of recognition as an Intellectual Center and as a Cultural Center, now also recognized as a Pharmaceutical Center and a Banking Center. Cardinal Erasmus headed up an important Roman Catholic Seminary, the origins of the University of Basel, staying on in the city, even after the Protestant Reformation. Basel hosted the first public art museums including the first museum of modern art. International pharmaceutical giants Hoffman la Roche (which the locals call Hoff-Roche) and Novartis are headquartered in Basel along with five other major Pharma offices. Novartis and Roche carefully watch each other across the river from impressive, well secured office tower complexes (ironically, Novartis once owned about 17% of Roche, just this month sold – but such is Swiss, and big business, connectivity). The International Center for banking exchange (the Bank of International Settlements) is also headquartered here, living in an iconic, fortress like office building (since 1977), called the BIS Tower that overlooks the main train station plaza and park; BIS is also in another impressive building, five blocks away, called the Botta building; once I tried to just walk into the Tower …. both street level and underground, no luck. Basel is small, less than 200,000 population. The locals are pleasant but guarded; there is an arura of important business borne with time-honed satisfaction. The city is ranked tenth in livability in Europe.
I have been there about 10 times; Shirley and I took an anniversary trip to Basel for a special dinner at Stucki and to visit some friends on the edge of the Black Forest.
Basel was begun by the Romans for river trade in about 65 AD, slowly becoming a regional center. The name derives from the name of the early Roman builder, but not really named until about 250 AD. Even today it serves as a center for that part of France, Germany and Switzerland with a three state airport, Mulhouse (the EuroAirport: Basel Mulhouse Freiburg). Basel joined the Swiss confederation in 1501; its language is German with an additional local subdialect, but most of Basel also speak French and English. Switzerland itself is divided into French, German and Italian language regions. In about the year 1000 modern development began with Metz money and influence with a grand Cathedral, called the Munster, some bridges, town center, etc…. European Guilds originated in Basel in 1226, first the Furriers. The first Swiss zoo was built in Basel in 1874. Curiously, since Jews are less than 1%, the first Zionist World Conference was held in Basel in 1897 and nine more since. Basel is famous for its Winter Carnival (the three days after Ash Wednesday) and its Military Music Parade week (the third week in July).
Even though small, the city hosts an amazing 40 museums most for art and sculpture; you can’t possibly get to all of them. Famous collections include teddy bears, watches, toys, jewelry, architectural pieces, Swiss and European masters and of course it’s world famous modern art at the Museum for Contemporary Art and several others. Prominent pieces include the Monet “Water Lilies” collection not elsewhere, the largest collection is in Paris (See “Paris,” SCNow, June 30, 2021), Pablo Picasso “Seated Harlequin” and “The Two Brothers” (Picasso loved the people so much he donated four other paintings to the city), Jean Tinguely “Meta-Maxi-Maxi-Utopia” sculpture and don’t miss his famous fountain – in fact rest behind it, under the lattices, to enjoy a meal at the Fondue Stubli, Rodin “ The Burghers of Calais,” Bocklin “The Isle of the Dead,” Beuys “The Hearth,” Holbein “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” van Gough “Self Portrait with a Japanese Print,” Gaugin “ta matete,” and Cezanne “Madame Cezanne a la chaise jaune.”
Start your city tour at town center at the Market Square in front of the City Hall, also the Canton of Basel- Stadt headquarters, wandering through the adjoining buildings and gardens, but beware the trams, as they are very quiet (tram fares expected or pass card from your hotel). City Hall is often open to tourists (Rathhaus Basel) with some posted history, Roman statues and an amazing, well-appointed conference and state dinner halls on the third floor. Climb a hill on one side up to the very old Basel Munster (or Heinrich Munster) now administered by the Swiss Reformed Church, but originally a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and now a meeting place for St James Church, and its important artifacts and its famous crypts including for Cardinal Erasmus. Because of its obvious tourist value, the city supports two thirds of the Church budget and upkeep. On the other side of the square walk up streets of shops with clothing, jewelry, watches and cigars and never ending pubs and small restaurants (despite its small size Basel has over 1000 restaurants); mini-shopping malls are tucked away, almost unseen. The COOP supermarket chain seems to have stores everywhere and all well stocked; a professor friend of mine, once hired a truck to carry his purchases home. Turn towards the river for some fine old hotels, a business district (actually on both sides of the river), old Roman ruins with standing arches and walls and one of the train stations. Walk along the river on both sides, but the South side (Left Bank) is probably more grand with the homes of pharmaceutical executives, those executives not living in the suburbs, and mansions turned into Government agency buildings. The tram system is excellent, both green and yellow, and take a green tram to explore other neighborhoods, the impressive sports complex (tennis, running, gymnastics, soccer and ice hockey) and Convention Center. Take the tram to Riehen passing old, well landscaped Hoffman family mansions and to visit the Beyeler Foundation Museum, probably Basel’s most famous art museum; a well known model train store lies at the tram end-of-line. An amusing vignette: two very smart Florentines once took this tram line to its end, just to pass time and to visit with each other, expecting to “stay put” for the whole trip; well at the Riehen end, they waited and waited, started to grumble, and then finally discovered they had to alight to walk about 50 yards to the “return” station.
I love the food of Basel, a mixture of Swiss and all four adjoining countries plus great Indian and Asian foods. If you go to Riehen, wine and dine at the Sangerstubli (ask to use the courtyard) and in Basel St. Alban Stubli (once I went there twice in the same trip), the Brasserie in the Three Kings Hotel, Cheval Blanc, Stucki (in days of old, we knew the owners) , Chez Donati (older patrons, most with favorite tables; great veal), the Volkshaus, Taverne Johann, Tostubli, da Roberto, Restaurant Aeschenplatz, Safran Zunft (you must have their fondues), Schlussel Zunft, Fondue Stubli and Wettstein; most have been seen many repeat visits.
If you have the time, wander into the French countryside for a visit to the Auberge St. Laurent and its world famous five star restaurant, the “Bistrot a Cote” operated by the Albeit family, all in the charming village of Sierentz; despite its high ranking, it’s decorated to local village charm and will serve moderately priced meals “family style” (don’t tell Shirley, but I once spent five hours there, probably the longest block of time I ever spent in a restaurant, but the owner distracted, as he came by to sit and chat). On my “Shirley” trip I also took her on a tour of the enchanting Black Forest.
Auf Wiedersehen….for now.