Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Basel-Bâle-Basilea: where Switzerland meets France and Germany!

Map adapted from WorldAtlas.com
Well, that went by in a flash! They say time flies when you're having fun - which is true - but when you're only in a city for 40h and have a packed program (centred around a housewarming party, yay!), then it's like time is even more condensed and everything feels more intense!

So, instead of starting this blog off with Mallorca (back when I started fidgeting with the layout and name in August), or Belgium (where I'm spending the Fall), I'm inaugurating it with a little corner of Switzerland, nudged in a tiny corner (or should I say triangle?) between the French and German borders!

Basel, Basle, Bâle (French), Basilea (Italian, Spanish) might be small (only ~166'000 inhabitants) by most countries' standards, but it is Switzerland's third largest city! In fact, when you consider the "transborder" population, the numbers rise to 830'000 inhabitants and it becomes Switzerland's second largest city! "Transborder" you say? Sorry, my brain is making up its own words again! Most of the people who work in Basel (major pharmaceutical industries and research centres) actually live just across the borders in France and Germany where the cost of living is much lower. Talk about commuting to another country to work! But one of the towns on the French side, St Louis, is basically just a suburb of Basel, and when we drove through there to get to our friends' house, you couldn't tell where one finished and the other started except for the Border control booth... which was empty! (and which is why we went that way instead of via the highway, better for smuggling Belgian chocolate into the country, you don't want the Swiss knowing you're bringing in the higher-quality competition! lol!)

Basel is a city of fountains, close to a couple hundred says my friend!

And it's a city where safety isn't much of a concern... none of these bikes were attached to anything (and people frequently forget to lock their cars)!

Basel is also the city if the Basilisk,

...protector of the city, found on fountains and wall engravings all over the place...

Was a long drive to get there... almost 6h from Liège Friday night (and 5h back on Sunday), crossing Belgium, driving down the French-German border (on the German side to avoid the bloody tolls on the French highways) and then snipping into and out of France and into Basel via its suburbs. Strange. And worth it! Both to enjoy a weekend with friends, and as a chance to discover a new city!

We basically just wandered around Saturday afternoon, starting by entering the old city (Grossbasel) through the Spalentor, one of the old fortified gates:

 We continued down rather empty streets with quaint shops 

until we reached the main square with City Hall... apparently an impressive building, when not hidden under a protective cloth for a face-lift!

Heading off to the right we entered the main commercial street... lots of shops installed in grand old buildings (was hard keeping track of one of my slightly "shopaholic" friends, lol!),

 with street performers of all kinds spread out every other block:

Best of all was the gorgeous sandstone Gothic "cathedral"!

I put cathedral in quotation marks since I don't know if the term can be used for a Protestant temple... in any case it used to be the Cathedral before the Reformation all those centuries ago. And fortunately for it, most of the sculptures remained intact (unlike in many other old churches which were practically gutted of any ornamentation during the wars of Reformation...). Admire the details in the archway over the main entrance (click on photos for larger view):

 And these saints looking over the faithful entering the Church?

This view is from inside the Cloister... beautiful at any angle!

 And the light was just right to make the passages and halls of the Cloister glow...

An exit in the last hall leads outside to the back of the church,

where there were plenty of funky critters on the base of the window columns!

The entrance to the transept seems to be more Romanesque than Gothic:

Including the scultpural style of this bas relief of the Apostles and Christ above the door,

and the Evangelists on each side of the door:

Other than the uniqueness of the colour attributed to having been built with sandstone, I loved the choice of tiling for the roof... more colours!!!

Here are a few glimpses of the inside. Looking up the central nave towards the choir:

and then down the nave (from the transept) towards the organ:

There were some lovely stain glass windows, like this one above a medieval queen's tomb:

And here's another combination of gothic (pointed) and romanesque (round) arches:

When we headed back out into the sunlight we found ourselves in for a treat! Every Saturday at 5 p.m. there is a brass concert (trumpets, trombones?) from the top of the bell tower!

After listening for a while we continued on down towards the river in direction of the oldest bridge in the city, the Mittlere Brücke:

On our way down we passed by some very old (1438!) houses built into the city walls,

and noticed more of them jetting out over the Rhine once we were on the bridge:

This view is looking up towards the Wettsteinbrücke, once Basel's second oldest bridge, but recently rebuilt:

The Rhine is like a great artery through this city... it allows for Basel to have Switzerland's only cargo port and great barges carry goods down the Rhine to be placed on ocean-going ships in Rotterdam.

There are also a series of very quaint ferries called the Fähri which are attached to a steel cable and are entirely hydraulically driven as it is the force of the current which moves the boat across the river once the ferryman has oriented the boat at an angle of 45º from the current:

Across the bridge in Kleinbasel ("little Basel", very different atmosphere!), we indulged in a few local treats and all bought a pack of Läckerli:

A specialty from Basel which is similar to gingerbread, and very hard not to gobble down in a single sitting!

We also drooled a bit in front of a chocolate store... but since we had a stock of Belgian chocolate waiting for us back "home" didn't give in to temptation!

In any case, we had to leave plenty of room for dinner! Our friends took us to eat another local specialty: Rösti! The base is fried shredded potatoes, covered in cheese:

or sausages and onions:

I went for the cheese... DELICIOUS!!! But definitely a meal that sticks with you for several hours! ;o)

We tried to walk some of it off in a public park Sunday morning... and I spent more time chasing an elusive (anti-photogenic!) squirrel around:

It was nice of him to point me in the direction of a old war memorial:

This parc was once upon a time a cemetary... now all that remains is this memorial to the fallen in two World Wars:

And since running after squirrels wasn't goofy enough for me, I hung out with a troll as well!

And that's it! I definitely have to go back... the city has more to show I'm sure! Including nearby archaeological sites of Roman and Celtic origin... Plus my friend tells me that in the summer it's possible to swim and play in the Rhine! They set up inner-tube rides heading downstream, sounds like great fun to me!

So, short and sweet. And hanging out with friends like these how could it be anything but fun?! ;o)

Want more info?
Basel city website

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