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Basel : Feasting on culture in Switzerland

Subhasish Chakraborty writes how with museums of every kind, a scenic setting on the Rhine and one of Europe’s best winter carnivals, Basel makes an appealing stopover especially for art lovers.

It was 2008, and imagine the excitement when, out of nowhere, I was invited to present a Paper on West Bengal's Sustainable Tourism platform, at an International Conference of Sustainable Tourism, held at the Swiss city of Basel. The offer came at a time when the City of Joy – Kolkata, was reeling from an acute "heat wave" and the scorching summer had already claimed a few lives in the city and its suburbs.

Frankly speaking, I was flabbergasted. I reached Basel and the moment I checked in at the magnificent Hotel Hilton, I knew I was in a exceptional place. I was visiting the city at a time when the UEFA Cup 2008 was going on and like any soccer crazy Kolkatan, I fancied my chances to have at least one outing to the stadium in Basel to enjoy the adrenalin pumping excitement of European football.

In this city, I was told that new excitement comes with every change of sides and the billboards everywhere proudly displayed the caption – "Basel. Beyond The 90 Minutes". Clearly, Basel Tourism was hard selling the city as a tourist destination. Once famed only as an exposition centre for huge exhibitions on many of Switzerland's famous exports such as watches, clearly, Basel has much more to offer. With museums of every kind, a scenic setting on the Rhine and one of Europe's best winter carnivals, Basel makes an appealing stopover, especially for lovers of art and contemporary urban design. The city's year-round attractions, including the engaging Old Town, are mostly concentrated in Grossbasel (Greater Basel) on the south bank of the Rhine. Over the river, Kleinbasel (Little Basel) is a grittier area, long home to this rich city's working class. The relief bust of Lällekeenig (Tongue King) – near the southern end of Mittlere Brücke – sticking his tongue out to the northern end of town, just about sums up the old attitude between the two sides of town. Basel is also the closest Switzerland comes to having a seaport; the Rhine is navigable for decent-sized ships from this point until it reaches the North Sea in Holland. It follows a gentle bend through the city, from southeast to north.

I was fortunate enough to come into contact with an old acquaintance of my dad – Oliver Meier, who was a resident of Basel and with whom my father had worked during his stint at the World Bank. I was carrying his address and luckily located his modest Swiss chalet on the outskirts of Basel.

Oliver advised me that the best way to explore the center of Basel is to take the five walks around the old part of the city. Each walk shows the city and its development from a different angle and takes you through the narrow streets and lanes of Basel to its large museums and fine squares.

I contacted the tourist office and informed them about my intention of embarking on the walking tours of Basel City. I opted for one walk per day with a resting day in between so as to be at my best physically and mentally.

I must confess, one of the great advantages of Basel is its manageable size: within a short time you can see and experience so much. Situated on the Rhine at the point where the Swiss, French and German borders converge, Basel has a unique character and is a fascinating city full of charm. It's a city where everything runs with clockwork precision and yet there is a cosmopolitan character it owns emphatically.

The Erasmus Walk:


This short walk took me up to the Rheinsprung, to the hill on which the Munster Cathedral stands – the scene of major events in the city's history. I was told by the well-informed guide that this part of the city has been the site of human habitation for the past 22 centuries. Both the Celts and the Romans established settlements here and I could see their remnants in the vicinity.

The town planners have done a wonderful job by redesigning the entire neighborhood that serves as an exclusive residential area of a more secular nature and is also home to numerous corporate offices and impressive museums.

I quite liked the promontory on the riverside of the Munsterplatz Cathedral, from where you can see the panoramic views of the city and the Rhine river as it changes course to flow north and beyond to the hills of the Black Forest and the Vosges – a truly kaleidoscopic vignette. In the Cathedral numerous historical figures lie buried, including the Erasmus of Rotterdam. From there we walked back to the market square and spent some time at the principal shopping hub – the Freie Strasse.

The Jacob Burckhardt Walk:

This walk took me to the Frei Strasse neighborhood via the choir of Barfusserkirche and finally to the city's main theatre square – "Theaterplatz". The contrast here between the modern edifices and neo-Gothic church – "The Elisabethenkirche" that towers above it, is very palpable.

One of Basel's most hip and happening squares is the Tinguely Fountain, which has become a much preferred hangout zone for the youth brigade and there is an impeccably landscaped garden with a fabulous restaurant at the Kunsthalle, where I and my energetic guide Victor had a fulfilling meal under the shade of Chestnut trees.

One of Basel's nerve centers is the Barfusserplatz and I was stupefied by the sight of the medieval church, where an open-air musical event was going on. Victor took me inside the church where there is a Museum with a rich assortment of artifacts. From Barfusserplatz, we walked leisurely along the city's meandering alleyways, and the quaint shops and boutiques on Spalenberg and Heuberg were a revelation. It is a 45-minute walk and is dedicated to the memory of Jacob Burckhardt who was an art scholar and historian.

Thomas Platter Walk:

The Thomas Platter Walk is of great significance for craftsmen and academics. According to my guide Victor, "The Thomas Platter Walk takes you through the picturesque lanes and alleyways of a former craftsmen's district and the street names give a local flavor of the trades that used to be plied here". I was ushered to the place where the craftsmen of yesteryears used to draw their water from the river Birsig, which even today flows perennially under the Marketplatz down to the Rhine River.

There is a bit of climbing involved, particularly on the stretch leading up to Spalenberg. But once you are on top of the hill, you essentially leave the Old City and pass by Petersgraben along which the city wall used to run. On further coaxing by Victor, I climbed further ahead and reached Spalenvorstadt, which happens to be one of Basel's old time gateways. Here you have the Spalentor, which is regarded as one of Basel's finest edifices, that dates back to the 14th century.

The University, one of the oldest in the whole of Switzerland, founded way back in the year 1460, is a must visit and next to it is the fabulous St.Peter's Square (Peterplatz), where every Saturday, a colorful flea market entices both the residents as well as visitors to bargain and shop.
The Paracelsus Walk:

The Paracelsus Walk took me through both sides of the dreamy valley of the city's shimmering river Birsig. We walked up to the captivatingly named "eleven thousand virgins" lane, which is popularly referred to as the Elftausendjungfern-Gasslein in local Swiss parlance. The most striking edifice here is the church of St. Martin and the entire edifice was illuminated with neon lights on the eve of a Christian holy mass. I was most impressed by the amazing facades of the unusually large town houses that bore ample testimony to the sheer wealth of the old city. I was told that these town houses now serve as office rooms for Basel city's administration.

The walk through the narrow lanes and bylanes takes you back to the valley and even without you noticing it you will walk over to the neighborhood of Falknerstrasse and cross the shimmering Birsig river. The walk on the other side of the lovely valley takes you through a roller coaster tour of the quintessential "Craftsmen's Alleyways" and further ahead is the magnificent church of St. Leonhard and beyond is the Lohnhof.

In the good old days, Lohnhof used to be the seat of Basel's government offices and later on a prison. As of today, the Lohnhof has been remodelled into an exclusive residential zone, with its own Music Museum and a decent hotel.

We followed the narrow cobbled streets all the way to the Marketplatz but thanks to my hawk eyes, I could see the Pharmaceutical History Museum and a visit inside this one-of-a-kind museum revealed carefully preserved utensils dating back to the time of Paracelsus.

Hans Holbein Walk:

Hans Holbein, I was told by my guide Victor, lived from 1514 to 1526 and again from 1528 to 1531 in the city of Basel. He was a master portrait artist and this enchanting walk requires around 90 minutes.

One of Basel's most enduring charms is the city's ideal location vis-à-vis the Rhine river. All visitors to Basel should therefore make it a point to explore both sides of the river. This walk commences along the more prosperous quarters in the city's old district all the way up to the magnificent Munsterplatz Cathedral. In present times, this much talked about cathedral square hosts some of the city's most important events like the Basel Autumn Fair, Basel Carnival and other open-air exhibitions.

We wended our way through the Patrician's houses in Knight's lane all the way to the city's former inner moat and remarkably maintained residential quarter – St Alban-Vorstadt. For the art aficionados, a must visit place is the Museum of Fine Arts where you will come across well preserved artworks of the great artist – Hans Holbein. Other major wayside attractions are the Caricature & Cartoon Museum as well as the stately St. Alban church. There is an opening in the ramparts through which you can see the intriguing courtyard of the monastery that dates back to the Middle Ages.

There is also an impeccably preserved old city wall, which is worth visiting. Once we reached Grossbasel, we took a ferry ride across to Kleinbasel, which happens to be one of Basel's most pulsating neighbourhoods. We returned to the Marketplatz via Mittlere Brucke and it's where we saw the rude looking Lällekeenig , which I had earlier mentioned, it was the sculpted head of a medieval king sticking his tongue out at us.
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