Basel – The Cultural Cauldron of Switzerland
The five walks around the old part of the city
It was year 2008 and imagine the huge relief 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 fortunate 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 at least have one outing at the stadium in Basel to see the adrenalin pumping excitement of European football.
The city wore a festive look. Museums of worldwide renown and ultramodern architecture on both sides. And no matter whether you are left or right of the Rhine : you will find innovative theatre, music, hip clubs and traditional establishments everywhere. 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.
I was fortunate enough to come in 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 with the World Bank. I was carrying his address and rightfully located his modest Swiss chalet in the outskirts of the city.
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 banks of the Rhine at the point where the Swiss, French and German borders converge, Basel is a unique and fascinating city full of charm. It’s a city where everything runs in clockwork precision and yet there is a cosmopolitan character it owes emphatically.
The Erasmus Walk
The first walk that I embarked upon was 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 the remnants of that 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 river side of the Munsterplatz Cathedral from where 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 made for a truly kaleidoscopic vignette. A closer look at the Cathedral revealed numerous historical figures that lay buried, inclusive of 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
The second walk- Jacob Burckhardt 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 center 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.
The Jacob Burckhardt Walk takes about 45 minutes and is dedicated in the everlasting memory of Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), who was a scholar of art and a noted historian.
Thomas Platter Walk
The Thomas Platter Walk on the other hand is of great significance for craftsmen and academics. According to my well informed 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 site 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
Walk No 4 – the Paracelsus Walk took me through both sides of the dreamy valley of the city’s shimmering river Birsig. We walked up to an captivatingly named “eleven thousand virgins” lane, which is popularly referred to as the Elftausendjungfern-Gasslein in the 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 congregation. I was most impressed by the amazing facades of the unusually large town houses that bore ample testimony to the sheer wealth of old city. I was told that these town houses serve as office rooms of 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 as a prison house. As of today, the Lohnhof has been remodeled 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-its-kind museum revealed carefully preserved utensils dating back to the time of Paracelsus.
Hans Holbein Walk
The last of my walks was the rather educative 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 charm 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 the 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 the 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 art works 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 neighborhood. We returned to the Marketplatz via Mittlere Brucke and saw the rather strange looking “Lallekonig”, which is essentially the head of a medieval king sticking his tongue out.
Basel – A Football Crazy City
Of all the cities in Switzerland, Basel is the most football crazy. And I found the enthusiasm infectious and spreading far beyond the city limits and throughout the surrounding regions which I had visited during my Walking Tours.
As luck would have it, I was there in Basel for just a week and unfortunately I couldn’t take out time to watch live action inside the stadium. It left me disgusted not being able to make it for even one match of the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship. But I did make it a point to visit the wonderful Basel stadium (St.Jacob Park Stadium) that has hosted some of the most exciting football matches that you will ever see.
The people of Basel have long been deeply attached to their very own FC Basel. No other Swiss club attracts as many loyal fans and I was fortunate to witness the practice session of FC Basel. This awesome stadium, built by the internationally acclaimed architects – Herzog & de Meuron, was embraced with open arms by the people of Basel as a tribute to their love of football. With a seating capacity for over 40,000 spectators, eleven VIP Boxes, a restaurant, a bar, a set of apartments for elderly residents and shopping mall with 33 stores, easily makes it one of the most enduring outdoor stadiums in the whole of Europe.
I could sense the anticipation of all those balmy football nights, the joy of a shared triumph, the passionate post match debates and discovery of new friends from all over Europe and across the world already very palpable here in Basel.
Traveler’s Fact File:
Basel is easy to get to. The airport is only a 10 minutes drive from the city center. Basel’s Euro Airport is served by a number of international airlines. Together with neighboring Zurich airport, it enjoys connections to all European airports and to more than 200 intercontinental destinations.
Located in the center of Europe, Basel is a major transportation hub. Its railway stations – the Swiss SBB, French SNCF and German Badischer Bahnhof, as they are known, not only offer excellent connections to far and wide but are also all situated in the very heart of the city.
Basel is a cosmopolitan city that offers all kinds of accommodations ranging from the superbly deluxe 5 star affairs to budget category hostels for backpackers. What is more, in Basel city, on checking in, hotel guests receive a free “Mobility Ticket” which entitles them to unlimited travel on all trams and buses in zones 10 and 11 for the duration of their stay in Basel.
City Tour by Bus
Take in Basel’s charm as you tour the city by bus. Starting from the German Railway Station – where one of Basel Tourism’s expert guides will board the bus – your varied tour route takes you to the border triangle, then across the Rhine a number of times, past the three old city gates, before arriving at the Basel Museum of Contemporary Art. The guided tour ends with a short walk to Munsterplatz.
Basel Tourism’s hi-tech multimedia technology allows you to follow in the footsteps of the world renowned figures who shaped Basel’s history, courtesy of iGuide. You have a choice between five city tours on your iGuide PDA, featuring commentary in English and German. IGuide provides you with individual perspectives, insights and details that might otherwise pass you by.
For further information on the city of Basel, please feel free to contact:
CH-4010 Basel, Switzerland
Tel: + 41(0) 612686868