On Mittwuch, (Wednesday) a 35-minute train trip found us in Basel, the 3rd largest city located in northwest Switzerland where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. Pronounced Basel in English and German and Bâle in French, we found this dynamic city easy to navigate and a joy to explore.
The official language of Basel is Swiss-German. It can be quite different from German and French and neither Google translate nor Duolingo have the language available. For example, “grüezi” is hello in Swiss-German, “guten tag” in German and “bonjour” in French. This was unfortunate as we like to study up on at least some of the basic words and greetings. Luckily for us, German and French are both widely spoken.
Prices in Basel seemed to be much higher than in France and Spain even when you take into account that Switzerland’s currency is the Swiss Franc, CHF, not the Euro and we found many places only accept cash.
We were excited to see the Altstadt or Old Town, which survived World War 2 unscathed, so as soon as we arrived we headed directly for the city center. Old Town is small and walkable and the architectural styles of the buildings, some dating to the 14th century, were diverse yet everything seemed to work together. We found Basel to be a bustling city with trams running everywhere.
Our train ticket from France also included access to any bus, train or tram within Basel, so we were able to hop on and off trams at will. This proved useful a couple of times late in the afternoon as we began to languish.
Our first major find was the Basel Rathaus or Town Hall, located on the large Marketplatz. The Basel Rathaus is sensational in size, design and color. The exterior of this 14th century building has a brilliant facade of red sandstone with colorful and historical architectural motifs, gold accents and a multi-colored roof. Through the front arches and into the courtyard there are beautiful murals and sculptures to be found. Truly a beautiful building.
Next on our list was to find the outstanding Basel cathedral which overlooks the Rhine. It has two tall thin towers and a brightly colored tiled roof so it wasn’t hard to find and it became a great landmark for us. Originally built as a Catholic cathedral between 1019 and 1500, it is now a Protestant church. For a fee of 5 CHF you can climb the 242 steps up a narrow spiral stairway to the top of the towers to see the views of the city and the Rhine. While tempting, we however chose a second option….
Basler Herbstmesse or the Autumn Fair in Basel
A delightful surprise, arriving when we did, was to discover Basel’s annual Autumn Fair in full swing. It has been an annual tradition in Basel for 500 years! The fair was spread among various locations of the old town area because there is no one plaza large enough to accommodate the whole fair.
In June 2018 we visited Bordeaux, France and saw a large beautiful Ferris wheel that was set up for the Bordeaux wine festival. We had planned to ride that Ferris wheel but never found the right moment, so when we spotted the 60 meter high Ferris wheel in Basel in the münsterplatz, we decided it was time for a ride. The bonus being that the Ferris wheel was higher than the church steeple and you didn’t have to climb 242 steps! Such a good decision. We were able to get a great view of both the city and the river Rhine from above.
Later, as we walked around Old Town, we discovered the “bahnen, öffnungszeiten und plätze” where vendors in covered booths were selling a large variety of artist’s creations. There were also booths selling food; in particular a schoko-küsse (Chocolate kiss). A schoko-küsse is a very sweet treat, dipped in chocolate, with a soft marshmallow-like interior, that sits on a thin wafer. It is a little larger in size and shape than an inverted shot glass. There were multiple flavors so we chose an almond honey schoko-küsse.
In reading about Basel’s Autumn Fair we found this cute anecdote that we felt we had to pass along.
Each year, the opening of the Basel Autumn fair is signaled by the ringing of the bells of the Church of Saint Martin. For many years, it has been Franz Baur who has been keeping this cherished tradition alive and ringing the bells. In return, he receives – like those who have rung the bells before him – a new pair of gloves. But not both gloves together. He receives one glove before he rings the bell, and the other once the bells marking the end of the fair have been rung.
We love to find the remains of old city walls but it is the few remaining gates that are the real eye catchers. The Spalentor, or Gate of Spalen, dating back to 1400, is an original gate from the Basel city walls and one of the more beautiful city gates we have found. Puerta de Cailhau and Grosse Cloche in Bordeaux and Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart in Valencia, Spain are more of our favorites.
There is a fair amount of ornamentation on the Spalentor including an historic letterbox that has an image of the Dove of Basel. On July 1, 1845 the first tricolor stamp in the world was created using this Basel Dove image. For any stamps collectors out there, there were only 41,480 stamps printed between 1845 and 1854, so this one is valuable. The stamp features a white embossed dove carrying a letter in its beak. The stamp was inscribed “STADT POST BASEL” and is printed in black, crimson and blue.
Spielzeug Welten Museum
We also visited the 4-story Toy Welten Museum in Basel which is the largest museum of its kind in Europe. There are over 6,000 exhibits (teddy bears, dolls, play shops, doll houses and miniatures) arranged in amazingly detailed vignettes. It is however the amazing 2,500+ teddy bears that make a visit enriching with the oldest teddy bear dating back to 1904. We particularly enjoyed listening to and watching a woman and her young granddaughter exclaiming in German, over the wonderful visual stories the toys told.
Basel is known as a city with excellent museums and we barely touched the tip of the iceberg. One of our favorite ways to acquire a feel and understanding of a city is to visit the local history museum. However, on this trip we even skipped that. Instead we walked for miles exploring and enjoying Altstadt, stopping to taste a little local cuisine at lunch, wandering the fair, riding the Ferris wheel and taking dozens of pictures. It was a great day! Basel, Switzerland is definitely worth a return visit.
Pröschtli from the temporary Baselions,
Ted and Julia