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Welcome to the bustle of Basel

This vital city in northwestern Switzerland brims with energy in its streets, markets and in its people, the hardy Baslers.


Revised August 2, 2000

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000

[Photos: Tom Bross]
Dating from 1370, the Spalentor was a fortified gate when medieval Basel was surrounded by city walls.
BASEL, Switzerland -- Swiss stereotypes: Here we go again. Start with an Alpine mountain range and some woodsy chalets, then complete the picture by adding a placid lake, yodelers and perhaps Heidi herself. Other ready-made images include good behavior and well-oiled (dare I say bland?) efficiency.

But Basel's an exception.

This city breaks the stodginess mold, and you may sense that immediately upon arrival at the central railroad station. There, in the main hall with its high ceilings, stands one of gonzo sculptor Jean Tinguely's huge motorized contraptions -- slow-motion wackiness combining wheels, pulleys, gears, cables, junky metal frames, blinking lightbulbs and what seems to be a stuffed chicken's head.

It is startling to see such far-out whimsy displayed in serious Switzerland, especially on such a large scale in such a public place. But Basel has always been more continental than completely Swiss.

French and Swiss railroads function in separate sections of that same station. German trains chug to and from another terminal, about a mile away on the opposite side of the Rhine. One border-crossing streetcar line takes passengers into French territory; another reaches Germany's southwestern corner.

Back in town, the market square's daily splurge of fruit, vegetables, cheese and flowers comes mainly from the neighboring countries. While browsing and noshing, I looked up at the turreted 16th century City Hall, decorated with multicolored frescoes and painted a rather daring shade of red.

Nearby Barfusserplatz (Barefoot Place, commemorating the area's shoeless friars centuries ago) ranks as the busiest urban hub. Green trams rumble through, automobile traffic is heavy and pedestrians cram sidewalks and zebra-striped crossing lanes. What's more, this has long been the favored meeting (read: pickup) place where guys and girls play the dating game.

Want a fine panoramic vantage point for all the action? Choose the streetfront terrace at Parisian-style Brasserie zum Braunen Mutz, where chatty patrons nurse bottles of regionally brewed Feldschlosschen beer.

A block away, Gerbergasse -- an auto-free side street -- beckons with cubbyhole clothing and chocolate shops, cafis and aromatic bakeries.

Stroll a few yards from there to the Municipal Theater's plaza: civic open space saved from sterility by another surrealist extravaganza conceived by Tinguely. This one, a fountain, tosses water around in an aqua-mechanical kind of way that mesmerizes kids and creates wondrous ice formations in freezing weather.

Cold temperatures, coincidentally, involve Baslers at their nuttiest. About 15,000 of them get that way during a non-stop, three-day binge that swings into action on the Monday following Roman Catholicism's Ash Wednesday. Welcome to February's Carnival -- called Fasnacht in this part of Europe -- heralded noisily when a parade begins at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m.

Marchers wearing freakish costumes and fearsome masks strut to out-of-tune fife-tooting and drum-banging, aimed at chasing away the evil spirits of winter and darkness.

Even during that gloomy season, you are sure to see residents out for their daily stroll -- a schnaigge, in Basel-talk -- on riverside walkways shaded by big-leafed chestnut trees at milder times of the year.

Whatever the season, cast-iron green griffins (long-time "protectors" of the city) spout cold water from their beaks, filling basins. A student I met was using one of them as a wine bottle cooler.

The Rhine flows here by way of a graceful curve, and Baslers like to say they live "at the knee of the Rhine." When not in a hurry and deciding to forgo bridges, Baslers can cross "the knee" aboard any of four slim wooden ferry boats with capacity for a dozen or so passengers. Resembling Venetian gondolas, in service since the mid-1800s and existing nowhere else, the boats are attached to cables stretched between the embankments; the river current drifts them from one side to the other in regular, lazy back-and-forth commutes. One-way fare is less than $1.

Sightseers board an excursion boat in Basel for a Rhine River cruise.

I made a midday transit aboard one boat, the Ueli. Holding the tiller, the young captain steered while lounging comfortably against throw pillows on an upholstered bench under a covered area. Attached to the curved walls of this "cabin" were a bud vase filled with yellow flowers, a Blessed Virgin holy card and a snapshot of a pretty woman. His wife or girlfriend, perhaps? I meant to ask him but changed my mind, because she was obviously naked when posing for this photo.

Innermost Basel's streets slither up and over two not-so-steep hills. From the market square, I map-read my way to Augustinergasse. Then I ambled past shopfronts and arched doorways to reach what is said to be one of Europe's oldest cathedrals north of the Alps: a pink sandstone behemoth, dominating the skyline for 650 years, topped by twin Gothic steeples visible from just about everywhere in town.

After viewing that landmark, I purposely lost myself in a tangle of narrow streets to sense what Basel must have looked like during the Middle Ages. On Rittergasse, for instance, there's a chunk of Celtic wall, circa 1290.

Packed-together houses along the short length of Rheingasse bear curlique-lettered mottoes and dedications dating from the 14th century. Two gate towers from that era still stand guard on Old Town's western and eastern edges.

For quirky contrast, on a nearby street named St. Alban-Vorstadt, a townhouse standing since 1422 now contains the Caricature & Cartoon Museum, specializing in international satire and humor from the recent past.

That belongs at the lighthearted end of Basel's impressive cultural spectrum. Tops at the serious end -- and located a few blocks down from the cathedral heights -- is Switzerland's Fine Arts Museum.

mapThis museum is divided into two floors for easy orientation. Early-era German paintings (Durer the younger, the elder Holbein and Cranach) along with Dutch-Flemish Old Masters (Rubens, Rembrandt, Bruegel) dominate street-level galleries. A bonus in the courtyard entry: Rodin's Burghers of Calais, a sculptural grouping.

Continuing upstairs, I viewed a wealth of well-known French impressionist canvases, expressionist and abstract works (notably by Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Rouault, Otto Dix and Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti). From 1963, Lichtenstein's Hopeless depicts a comic-strip blond in larger-than-life tearfulness.

Avant-garde art and design converge at the relatively new Beyler Foundation Museum, reachable by trolley service connecting Basel with its northeastern Riehen suburb. Celebrity architect Renzo Piano's glass pavilion gets nearly as much acclaim as what's inside -- paintings, drawings and sculptures by the 20th century's Who's Who (from Degas and Cezanne to Picasso and Mondrian).

Tom Bross is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Swissair and Delta Air Lines fly direct from Newark to Basel's airport, a few miles across the French border in Mulhouse.

STAYING THERE: For North American atmosphere, choose the slick Basel Hilton. For vintage European ritziness, the riverside Drei Konige am Rhein is one of Switzerland's grandest hotels. Less pricey but thoroughly decent accommodations are near the main railroad station -- including the Schweizerhof, Euler Basel and Metropol.

FOR INFORMATION: Contact Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; call (212) 757-5944. Web site:

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