Travel | 5 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Basel is Switzerland’s oldest University City
Located on both sides of the Rhine, in the three-country-corner of Switzerland, Germany and France, Basel is the third largest city in Switzerland. Not only diverse cultures, but also a multifaceted history, modern art and architecture converge here.
Arial view of Basel, river Rhine and Munster Cathedral
During our stay in Europe two years ago, Vera and I spent two days visiting Vera’s friend Visnja in Basel, Switzerland. This wasn’t our first time in Basel, but it was first time, we had extra time to tour the city and learn about its history.
Inner stadt Basel Herbst – Arial view of Basel, river Rhine and Munster Cathedral
Our friends, Visnja and Elizabeth, who live in Reinach, just outside of Basel, offered to give us a tour of the old city of Basel. We left our cars in Reinach and took the BLT tram #11, which was much faster than cars and no worries about traffic and parking in the busy centre of the city. Trams are most useful public transport units in Basel like in many other towns in Switzerland.
Tramway #11 from Reinach to Basel
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First of all, situated on the Rhine River neighboring the France, Germany and Swiss borders, Basel is 100 percent Swiss town (the locals speak Alemannic). Depending on your nationality, you either simply walk or drive over in a bus, bringing along a passport (yes, it still can be checked although that Switzerland is member of the Schengen treaty), or you need a passport AND a visa. The international border with France is on the west bank of the Rhine, about 2km north of the city centre; that with Germany is on the east bank, about 3km north.
Basel comprises the Switzerland’s highest level of museum concentration. Actually Basel boasts more than two dozen museums, for a population of 166,000 this fact sheds light on the unusual nature of this provincial town. The main culture-dominant city, the Europe’s most important art market spot every single June, furthermore a sweet home to the exquisite Munster Cathedral, constructed of red sandstone with a magnificent varicolored tile roof. Parks and green spaces flourish everywhere, including the famous zoological gardens right in the heart of the city. Switzerland’s greatest sightseeing place of Roman town ruins, Augusta Raurica, is an easy fascinating journey from the Basel to the east (about 20 km).
Basel old town
Basel old town
Our Basel hosts: Elizabeth and Visnja, with the two of us.
The Rhine (Rheine on German) describes an elegant right-angled curve through the centre of Basel, flowing from east to north and dividing the city in two. On the south/west bank is Grossbasel (Greater Basel), focused on the historic Old Town. Glitzy shopping streets connect Barfüsserplatz and Marktplatz, the two main Old Town squares, while medieval charm is retained in the steep lanes leading off to either side, where you’ll find peaceful leafy courtyards surrounded by sixteenth-century townhouses, a host of medieval churches, and the majestic steepled Münster dominating the skyline from its lofty Rhineside terrace.
There is no danger from barges
Swimming in the Rhine
Swimming in the Rhine is very popular in summer. You can even buy “Rhein-Schwimm-Säcke” (Rhein-swimming-bags). Good place for entry is at the Tingueley-Museum and you get out latest after the Johanniter Bridge. Swimming (or being carried along) in the Rhine is very popular in Basel. There are very few accidents every year. You may enter the river at virtually any place along its bank. To test if you like bathing in the Rhine, you may use one of the enclosed piers before venturing into the open stream.
Swimming (or being carried along) in the Rhine
A few words of caution however: If you are not used to swift currents, stick to the right bank: The current is not as swift and there are fewer and weaker eddies under the bridges. When crossing under a bridge, keep your distance from the pillars.
Tugboat operators take tourists across the river
As the river is shallower on its right side, there is no danger from barges, which have to stick to the middle of the stream or the left side (btw. the right bank is the sunny one in the afternoons). One can even jump off the platform next to the falls, then drift down Nohl jump off the pedestrian-bridge and continue to Dachsen where a boat (for a small fee) will take you back to Schaffhausen. Entering the Rhine is not a problem, exiting might take some effort for beginners. In general: you must be a GOOD swimmer and you need good swimming shoes (although the hard-core swimmers go barefoot I would not recommend it).
Beautiful buildings and narrow streets in old town
Beautiful buildings and narrow streets in old town
Who wouldn’t enjoy being a tourist here?
The Old Town and surrounding districts comprise the main business, shopping and nightlife areas of the city. The university, off Petersgraben, overlooks the Old Town from the west, while the main Swiss and French train stations are about a kilometre south. On the north/east bank of the Rhine is down-to-earth Kleinbasel (Lesser Basel), more residential and less weightily historical than its neighbour, with some laidback nightlife and the German train station near the giant Messe conference centre some 500m east of Kleinbasel’s central Claraplatz.
The focus of the Old Town is hectic Barfüsserplatz, crisscrossed by trams and overlooked by the soaring pointed-arch windows of the Barfüsserkirche. This elegant white church, built by and named after the bare-footed Franciscans, dates from the fourteenth century, was deconsecrated in the eighteenth, and is now home to the impressive Historisches Museum (Mon & Wed–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5, free on first Sun of month), devoted to documenting Basel’s cultural pre-eminence during the Middle Ages.
City’s main square
Once you’ve absorbed the stunning detail of the monumental choir stall (1598) facing into the church, the highlight of the ground floor is the collection of sumptuous fifteenth-century tapestries (press the button to raise the protective blind shielding each one) – these vivid, wall-sized pieces were woven to decorate private houses and churches, specifically in Basel and Strasbourg, and are exceptionally rare, both for their artistic quality and their excellent condition. Their imagery frequently concentrates on woodsmen, fabulous animals and courtly lovers – only three of the sixteen pieces show religious imagery – and one of the best is no. 235 (from 1490), the allegorical Garden of Love, showing two lovers playing cards inside a summer pavilion: the man has just slapped down a card with the words, “That last play of yours was a good one,” while the woman nods in anticipatory triumph: “And it’s won me the game!” Downstairs you’ll find an excellent detailed survey of Basel’s history, including a board locating ancient buildings, maps and globes galore, the original 1640 Lällekeenig, and bedchambers and elaborate wood-panelled rooms from the seventeenth century.
People enjoy music program on the town’s square
Basel streets and very colorful facades
Don’t miss the touching tapestry no. 237, a cushion cover from Strasbourg (1510) showing a revealingly dressed woman of the forest who’s been abandoned by a lover and now nurses a unicorn on her lap with the words “I’ve given the world my time, now I must live here in misery.” Head to the back, and you’ll come across a side room displaying the treasure of Basel cathedral, including two stunning silver-and-copper busts dating from 1270–1325, of St Pantalus (no. 251) and, with an even, almond-eyed gaze, a Buddhic St Ursula (no. 253). On a new upstairs level is a series of paintings showing the Dance of Death. The sequence originally formed part of a sixty-metre-long mural, which covered the inside of the cemetery wall of Basel’s Dominican convent, until its demolition in 1805. The mural depicts, in a graphic reminder of human mortality, an array of people of all different ages and professions on a macabre procession, which leads, eventually, to the cemetery’s charnel house.
West of Barfüsserplatz, lanes wind up to the beautiful Leonhardskirche, a Gothic construction built after the great 1356 earthquake with attractive portholed windows and an elaborate cat’s cradle of vaulting within. The gallery is accessible, but only up the tightest, narrowest spiral staircase imaginable.
Vera and the street barrel piano musician
Here are some of the museums that I would strongly suggest you to visit:
The Basel Historical Museum. There is a lot of stuff to see! Because It is one of the greatest and most essential museums of its kind in Switzerland, it’s a central cultural site and property of national significance. The city’s history since Celtic times to a dot is chronicled in the Barfusserkirche, a restored church of the Franciscan order from the 1300s.
Museum of Antiquities and Ludwig Collection (Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig) presents the exclusive artworks of Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations, for the most part from Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Italic cultures.
Museum der Kulturen Basel. The ethnological Museum of Cultures in Basel exhibits about 300,000 objects, collections of artifacts, historic photographs from all over the world, predominantly with an emphasis on the ancient Mesoamerican culture, the South Pacific, Bali, Tibet and rural Europe.
The Vitra Design Museum is a modernistic, ultramodern, international museum of industrial furniture, architecture and interior design with collections and changing exhibitions, it is located just across the German border in Weil am Rhein. Take the A5 motorway or the bus No. 55 until the bus stop ‘Vitra’. Or it’ll take approximately 15-minutes to get to the museum from the train station in Weil am Rhein. Museums activities include the production of exhibitions, publications, museum products, workshops, maintenance of a wide-ranging collection, an archive and a research library.
If you are real Travel lover, can you imagine a tourist life without visiting museums? I have listed only a small part of the huge Museum World, and I hope you’ll find your journey very interesting to have something to share in the future.
With its red sandstone walls, multicolored roof tiles and twin towers, the Cathedral is a dominant feature of the city. The crypt, the choir, the tomb of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Galluspforte and the two cloisters are a testimony to the eventful history of its construction over a period of several centuries.
The history of Basel as an urban settlement begins on the Cathedral Hill. In the first century BC, Celts from the tribe of the Rauricii lived there in a fortified «oppidum». In the Rittergasse, remains of the «Celtic Wall» can be seen in windows let into the ground.
In the year 15 BC, Roman troops constructed a military base on the Cathedral Hill on the border between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes. In the middle of the Münsterplatz one can see the covered shaft of a Roman well which extends down to the ground water of the Rhine.
Christianity became established in our region in the late Roman era. Documents exist which mention bishops from Augusta Raurica, a Roman civil town located roughly 10 km upstream. But from the 8th century onwards the names of all bishops, who now, however, resided in Basel, are known.
The first discernible traces of a cathedral date from the Carolingian period. This building was destroyed in 917 when the town was attacked by the Hungarians. At the beginning of the 11th century, Emperor Henry II endowed Basel with a magnificent new cathedral. In the last quarter of the 12th century, Henry’s cathedral was replaced by a late Romanesque building which was restored in the Gothic style after the devastating earthquake of 1356.
Around the Münsterplatz the members of the cathedral chapter built their own late Gothic residences. The large open space was used for ceremonial processions, festivals, tournaments and lavish parades held by visiting royal and imperial personages. In 1529 Basel fully converted to the Protestant faith. The bishop and cathedral chapter left the city. The empty residences of the churchmen were purchased by rich merchants and converted in the 18th century to the late baroque and neo-classical style. The Münsterplatz became a quiet, prosperous residential quarter and later the centre of the city’s administration. Today this fine square is used for all kinds of events and serves as a living open space for people to meet.
Describing Basel in one word is far from simple.
Labels such as Cultural Capital of Switzerland or University City can only be seen as an attempt to give the city, with its wealth of cultural, historical, leisure and enjoyment experiences, a single overarching name.
As for what to do: There is a plentitude of museums, the old part of the city is well worth visiting, there are countless restaurants and last but not least, there is the river Rhine that I highly recommend for a swim. By entering “visit Basel” in any search engine (there is not only Google), you’ll get tons of other suggestions. Be inspired by the city on the Rhine with all its facets.
Basel old town
Vera and Elizabeth on Basel street
A Celtic town stood on the hill now occupied by Basel’s Cathedral in the first century BC, but the city is traditionally dated to 44 BC, when the nearby Roman city of Augusta Raurica was also founded. By 374 AD, Basilia was a fort, and seat of a bishopric following the Alemans’ destruction of Augusta Raurica in the fifth century. In 917, the Huns swept through, sacking the town and destroying the Carolingian cathedral, but nonetheless by the thirteenth century, Basel had become a prominent town in the region. In 1225, Bishop Heinrich II of Thun built the first bridge across the Rhine – ancestor of today’s Mittlere Brücke – which coincided with the opening of a road over the Gotthard Pass into Italy, thus ensuring Basel’s continuing growth as a natural focus for trade. Plague ravaged the population in 1349, killing some 14,000, and just seven years later a major earthquake and subsequent fire razed much of the city. Shortly after, the two communities on either side of the Rhine – Grossbasel and Kleinbasel – united as a single city. For almost 20 years (1431–49), the ecumenical Council of Basel pushed the city into the European limelight as the church set about reforming itself; Pope Felix V was crowned in Basel during the council’s deliberations in 1440, and merchants, philosophers, emperors, princes and bishops flocked to the city, spurring the growth of papermaking, printing, and the development of ideas and trade in the region.
St. Jakob Park with Turm
It was time to jump on tramway #11 and return back to Reinach
Responding to the impetus of the Renaissance, in 1460 Pope Pius II founded Basel’s university, Switzerland’s oldest and a major centre for humanism which was home to the philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam throughout the 1520s and 1530s. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant refugees from France, Flanders and Italy expanded Basel’s industries but, since the city remained under the thumb of both noble families and the church, most were not accepted as citizens. In 1831, disaffected residents in the rural communities around Basel launched a rebellion against the city oligarchs and after a brief civil war managed to secede, forming their own half-canton of Basel-Land (countryside), separate to this day from Basel-Stadt (city).
Throughout the nineteenth century, a massive growth in industry led to the construction of the gigantic port facilities on the Rhine at the turn of the twentieth century, which still handle a large proportion of Swiss import/export trade a century later. But Basel is best known these days as a centre of both banking and chemical industry: the companies which started out dyeing silk ribbons woven by Huguenot refugees centuries ago are now the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, with their headquarters and laboratory facilities still in Basel. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) – a kind of supranational controlling body used by governments and national banks – was founded in Basel in 1929.
How beautiful and peaceful place…
Lots of Basel pictures:
Have a good and healthy season.
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Tags: Summer 2009