My upcoming Viking cruise begins in Basel, Switzerland. That came as good news: I’ve always wanted to visit Switzerland, but never dared, mostly due to its reputation as a pricey destination. But I really had no idea what to expect from Basel. And what I found was a great surprise.
To be sure, the part about Switzerland’s high costs is no lie. Finding a hotel at a reasonable price here is a real challenge. I ended up in a B&B in an outer neighbourhood for more than I usually like to pay. And if you want to go first-class, better up your credit card limit: the base rate at the five-star Les Trois Rois Hotel is 760 Swiss francs, a little over $1,000 Canadian a night. (The franc is near par with the U.S. dollar right now, so at least it’s easy to convert prices.)
Restaurant prices are just as outrageous: one Mōvenpick restaurant downtown charges 26 francs (about $35 Cdn) for a veggie burger – the ones with meat cost more. There are a few bargains to be had, but if you want a real meal at a reasonable price, you have to go to Germany, Luckily, its border cuts through the edge of town — as does the border to France: in fact, you could have breakfast, lunch and dinner in three different countries on the same day.
Still, once you get past the sticker shock, Basel really grows on you. My first impressions were typically Swiss: neat, well=kept buildings, clean streets, an efficient transit system, and a lot of people with earnest, if not severe, expressions on their faces.
But just a day in Basel, Switzerland showed me a whole other side, one that’s not apparent at first glance. Yes, the city is spic and span, especially the new parts. But that doesn’t mean it’s a cold, sterile place. In fact, it’s a charming, even lovely, city, and one that treats travellers better than many I could name.
The heart of the city, as with many places in Europe, is the Altstadt, or old city, and the heart of the Altstadt is the Rathaus, or city hall. And while you might have expected Basel’s to be a bit plain, it’s one of the most impressive ones I’ve seen in Europe, with a red stone front that shines like a copper penny in the evening light. Inside, it opens to a classic-looking courtyard teeming with statues and medieval art.
The rest of the old town is almost as impressive, winding streets leading up and down some fairly steep hills to reveal ancient churches, quaint shops and a venerable old university. And being a medieval city, there are some of the old towers left from a city wall that has long since been torn down.
Of course, the downtown is dominated by a great cathedral, in this case called the Münster. And it’s another sight to see, decorated with a truly dramatic statue of St. George killing the dragon and an arc of stone figures around the door that could rival Nôtre Dame.
But there’s a prosperous new side to Basel, as well. The city’s location on the Rhine made it a major trading centre in the old days. Today, it’s the city’s status as a centre for the chemical industry that has brought it the money, resulting in some striking new architecture. The wedge-shaped Roche Tower, on the north side of the Rhine, looms over the skyline like a modern Eiffel Tower. And just across from the Altstadt sits an undulating, futuristic convention centre called the Messe Platz that almost defies description.
Where else do the wealthy folk of Basel spend that money? On art. The city is Switzerland’s art centre, with art galleries big and small all over town. The huge, modern Kunstmuseum on the edge of the old town has an impressive collection of the greats, but there are also smaller, and quirkier ones. Like the Tinguely Museum, which features the work of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, who specialized in making kinetic art out of found objects. If you can’t visit the museum, drop by the Tinguely Fountain, just beside the ultra-modern Basel Theatre, to see his creations spin, crank and spew water in a dozen memorable ways.
But what about that famous Swiss reserve, that stern devotion to efficiency and self-restraint? You do see it here and there. But more often I’ve found people to be friendly and willing to talk. Restaurant staff say hello when you walk in. Store clerks give you a smile and pass the time. And ordinary people are happy to have a chat.
And there are some special moments to be had. On my first night in town, I settled down by the river to take some photos of the classic medieval bridge and waterfront. I was watching the little boats that still ferry people across the Rhine, guided by a cable strung across the river, when a heron flew past me and landed on the pilings below. I walked down the stairs to find him by the water’s edge, looking for a meal.
A young woman who worked at the nearby hotel was standing by. “This bird is my friend,” she said. “There’s an old saying here, ‘Fischers Fritze fischt frische Fische,’ which means Fritz the fisherman is fishing for fresh fish. So I call him Fritz.” Her break over, she went back to work. As for Fritz, he flew away without his fish: shows how accurate old saying are. But at least I came away with a photo, and a nice memory of Basel.