When you visit a city for the first time—especially if it's just a short stop—you can't do much more than grab a quick general view, and promise yourself to return. It's sort of like the New York Times' "36 Hours In..." series, and that's about what we had in Basel.
Basel hadn't been in our original plans, but traveling on airline awards can lead to interesting itineraries; in this case we could have flown home from Paris, but only with a stop at (shudder....!) Heathrow. The alternate was a non-stop from Zurich, and friends suggested we make the most of the detour by a stop in this fascinating city on the borders of both France and Germany. And thanks to them!
It's clear that Basel welcomes visitors; as we checked in to our hotel, we were given a "mobility pass," the city's gift to visitors, entitling us to free use of the city's extensive tram system. The tram system is so extensive and dense, it's sometimes hard to take pictures without trams in them. On the other hand, it's not one of those places that's all-tourist; the big local industry is Big Pharma.
We started off in early afternoon to see the town, stopping first for a small lunch of "brotli," small open-faced sandwiches of meat and cheese that are a local specialty. Continuing on, we climbed a steep street to Basel's MÜnster.
The cathedral reflects Basel's changing fortunes; it was started in the 11th century in Romanesque style and Catholic; shortly after it was finished in Gothic style around 1500 after damage from an earthquake in 1356 it became Protestant.
The cathedral has some interesting sculptures, including St. George slaying a dragon, above, and some lovely doors and spire details, below. Before the earthquake, by the way, it had five steeples, not two.
But nothing as fascinating as the mystery we're still trying to solve. On the face of the tower, on adjoining sides, are two vertical sundials, each with a metal rod to cast a shadow and mark the time. But note how different the numbers are! Our best guess is that the arrangements account for the sun hitting the two faces at different angles, but no one has been able to confirm it.
Inside the cathedral, in fact, the only explanation they could offer was "Basler Zeit," or Basel Time. When I looked that up in the German Wikipedia, I found that for about 400 years, from the mid-14th century to the last years of the 18th, Basel and its clocks counted the new day from 1 am, not midnight, and mid-day from 1 pm. There are different explanations; the one I like best is that the guards in the tower, finding that an enemy outside the walls was to be let into the city at midnight by traitors, held back the clock for an hour while help was summoned!
Also inside, we found exceptionally beautiful wood carvings and stained glass. Some of the pictures are here, some at the end of the blog.
Next door, in the cloister, we found an unusual memorial to Basel's past; a vegetable market, cast in bronze, where a real one flourished in medieval times, before the market that operates daily in front of Basel's town hall.
From a terrace behind the cathedral, we got a grand view of the city and the Rhine; Basel is considered the meeting point of the upper and lower Rhine. It's a busy river, with large freighters going by, and a view upriver to Basel's big industry: The towers in the background carry names such as Novartis, Abbott, Roche.
But the river still has room for smaller craft, and especially for Basel's unique ferries. This one has no sail, no motor—just a cable attached to a cross-river wire that keeps it from leaving. As the river's current pushes it downstream, a combination of the tiller and the cable cause it to slide across the river! At times, it feels as if the boat is moving sideways.
We crossed the river on the Mittlere Rheinbrucke, seen in the pictures above. This is the century-old bridge at a point where for centuries stood the only bridge over the Rhine for hundreds of miles. At midpoint is a small chapel, a copy of one that stood on the older bridge and was used for executions by drowning. Ironically, it has now sprouted a mass of so-called "Love Locks." At the far end is a statue of Helvetia, symbol of the Swiss Confederation.
Then we followed the signs to the ferry, and rode back across the river, and headed for the Marktplatz, or marketplace, opposite Basel's town hall.
There's no missing the Rathaus, or town hall. Its name, Rathaus, means "council house," and the equivalent in Basel's dialect is Roothus, which means both "council house" and "red house." It dates to the early 16th century, but it's been expanded and damaged and repaired many times since.
Inside, the decoration continues...everywhere you look, including an exhibit of about 30 election posters covering many eras of the 20th century. This one, used during a period when the building was under renovation, calls on voters to support a party calling for the inside (meaning the officials) to also be renovated. Unfortunately the real star of the building's art show is no longer to be seen: the Council chamber was originally decorated with a series of murals by Hans Holbein the Younger, but they were damaged and destroyed centuries ago. A few fragments are in the city's Kunstmuseum.
On our second day, we took a walk to Germany. Actually, we took a tram to a part of the city that adjoins Germany and walked in; the tram stops at the border, but commuter buses cross the line. We were headed for a museum that highlights the history of this area where three countries share a border and a long history. Unfortunately, our one chance came on a day when the museum wasn't open...but it was a pleasant walk. At the museum, we saw this wall of posters for exhibits all over the area on the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
Here's the border crossing...not much going on! Switzerland is a member of the Schengen area, so we were free to walk, but it's not a member of the European Union, so any cargo has to stop for the twin Swiss and German customs booths. Except that there was no one there; a sign informed truckers that they should go back and use another crossing point on the freeway. I'm sure they all complied...
On the other side, we found some odd signs of either the past, or of a present that might be ironic, or might mean something more sinister. The first sign announces that we are entering not the German state of Baden-Wurttemburg, but the long-gone Grand Duchy of Baden. And the next gives driving distances to six cities, five of which are no longer part of Germany. You'll have to decide what you think it means...
Returning to Switzerland, we visited the Kunstmuseum, and then, on the way for our last supper of this summer's trip, we stopped at the Tinguely Fountain, named for and designed by a Basel native son. He and his wife were the designers of one of our favorite Paris spots, the animated and amusing Stravinsky Fountain near the Centre Pompidou. This one lacks the colors of that one, but was fun nonetheless. It's a great place to sit for a while on a hot afternoon.
And some more pictures...hope you enjoy them!