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A cultural weekend in Basel

A cultural weekend in Basel

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-10-29

Only a short distance from Alsace and the Black Forest, Basel occupies a pivotal position where Switzerland, France and Germany come together. Still little known by the general public, this old humanist and university city crossed by the Rhine is nevertheless Switzerland's cultural capital.

A city on the Rhine that ticks all the boxes
In this pivotal 'three borders' region, one of the most vibrant cultural and economic crossroads of Europe, Basel certainly ranks as the foremost city.
The third Swiss city in population terms and the second economic pole (30,000 French and German frontier workers come to work here every day), Basel, which owes its wealth to its chemical and pharmaceutical industries, also enjoys a permanent cultural vibrancy as evidenced by its many congresses, fairs and exhibitions attracting more than a million visitors every year!
Art Basel, in June, is for instance the European contemporary arts event attracting major collectors, while Basel World, held in April, stands out as the foremost world watch, clock and jewellery show.
The very old autumn fair (held in Basel for the past 500 years) and the International Art and Antiques Fair, for their part, make the lacklustre month of November a moment of intense activity that you must experience once in your life...
Since the Renaissance, Basel has been home to some of the greatest western intellectuals, like the humanist Erasmus from Rotterdam, the doctor Paracelsus, the painter Holbein, and also in the 19th and 20th centuries, the historian Jacob Burckhardt, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.
On a different note, the surroundings of Basel - a few minutes from the Black Forest, the Vosges and the Jura - are also ideal for sport and relaxation. Moreover it is here, in the neighbourhood of Oberwil, that the world's leading tennis player, Roger Federer, has always lived.
Discovery of old Basel (a 2 to 3 hours walk)
High above the banks of the Rhine, the old town is, with its 15th century houses, one of the best preserved in Europe.
To explore it, I recommend you start from Marktplatz dominated by the Town Hall, seat of the government of the Canton of Basel-City. The construction of this monumental building, in red sandstone from the Vosges, took four hundred years, from 1504 to 1904!
Walk into the central courtyard to discover the frescoes by Hans Bock (1610) representing scenes from Jewish history. From a balcony overlooking the courtyard you can admire the roofs covered with multicoloured tiles and the tower featuring a marvellous golden wooden pinnacle by Master Diebold von Arx.
Every day, locals cross their Town Hall to reach the upper town perched on Münster Hill.
It is here, around the 12th century cathedral (where Erasmus is buried) that the main events of Basel's history took place.
Pfalz Terrace (name of the former episcopal palace) commands a fine view over the Rhine and its banks with their intense daily activity: dozens of boats going up or down the river, occasionally sometimes missing the pillars of Middle Bridge by a mere hair's breadth.
Locals also love to cross the Rhine on ferries which have been plying back and forth between 'Big Basel' and 'Little Basel'  for 150 years. You have to shake a bell for the Fährima (ferryman) to come and pick you up.
While nibbling the famous läckerli (spicy biscuits that have been made in Basel since the Middle Ages),  you'll now walk along the city's most beautiful paved, pedestrian streets like Spalenberg (with its multitude of art galleries, jewellers and antique dealers) or Gemsberg (leading to a square surrounded by 13th and 14th century houses).
Old Basel is also fascinating on account of its 170 monumental fountains, some of which feature the 'Basilisk': a dragon with a cock's head that has been Basel's emblem since the 15th century. The fountain water is potable, so on hot days you'll see many locals walking around with plastic cups to quench their thirst!
Der Teufelhof, a truly unique place!
If you're coming to Basel for the first time, I recommend you stay at Hotel Der Teufelhof, probably one of the quirkiest places in Europe. After crisscrossing the continent with their travelling theatre, its owners, Monica and Dominique Thommy-Kneschaurek, had the idea in 1989 to create high up in the old Basel a 100% cultural venue where creativity would be paired with gourmandise and hospitality.
Der Teufelhof is a hotel with 9 rooms, each decorated by a different artist and where televisions have been banned! The hotel also features a pretty, old-style theatre, under the roof, open all year round; a bar; a greengrocer's; and a wine cellar overlooking the city's former fortifications.
An aficionado of authentic, organic wines, Monica will introduce you to the best Swiss wines, like those by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz who produces, on the slopes of the Valais, crystal-clear Chasselas and really superb grain noble wines.
Der Teufelhof is also renowned for its Bel étage  restaurant  decorated with paintings, crystal chandeliers and various trompe-l'oeil paintings forming a nicely old-fashioned and intimate decor. Chef Michael Baader (one Michelin star) prepares creative cuisine with Italian hints (menus from 77 to 152 CHF).
Basel, Swiss cultural capital
Basel, with its 40 museums spread over only 37 sq. km., has a quite amazing array of cultural activities, satisfying all tastes, whether you like paintings, dolls or the unusual (as at the minute 'Hoosesagg-Museum' (Pocket museum) where everything you can find in a pocket is exhibited!).
You'll therefore have to pick and choose or else come back to Basel several times.
Among the 'must-visit' museums, mention is to be made of the Kunstmuseum, founded in 1661 by patrons of the arts. The first art museum open to the public, it is mainly devoted to paintings and drawings by Rhenish artists (Cranach, Grünewald, Dürer, etc.) and possesses the biggest world collection of works by the Holbein family. Paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne also form a memorable part of the visit.
The Tinguely Museum, designed by architect Mario Botta, pays homage to the great Basel artist (born in 1925) who, in the 50s and 60s in Paris, revolutionised the static world of arts by inventing all kinds of mobile sculptural machines.
UEFA Euro 2008
Saint Jakob-Park
Switzerland’s biggest stadium (42,500 seats) is also the country’s first multi-functional one. It succeeded the legendary “Joggeli” stadium, built in 1950 for the 1954 World Cup.
The new stadium, inaugurated in 2001, is the work of two famous Swiss architects: Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron, who notably created the extension of the Tate Modern in London, the Allianz Arena in Munich and the Olympic stadium in Beijing. Their idea was to place this ultra-modern tool within a vast urban project: a 16,500 m2 shopping centre on three levels, with offices, restaurants, a fitness centre, car park, retirement home...
The result is remarkable and nothing has been overlooked. The pitch is particularly pampered and can be used in summer and winter alike: it is heated by a 24 km-long network of pipes and a 12 km neoprene tube takes care of ventilation and underground irrigation. Pumps have even been designed to inject oxygen into the turf.
The stadium also boasts a 200 m2 warm-up room and a photovoltaic system on the roof of the stands. In short, Saint Jakob-Park is undoubtedly the stadium of the 21st century.
Two zones will be reserved for supporters: at the Kaserneareal, next to the Rhine, and on Münsterplatz. Giant screens will enable them to follow the matches live, and numerous concerts – featuring groups from the region – will also be on offer.
For refreshments, the 3.2 km “Fans’ Boulevard”, which passes through the city centre, will be the place to go.
Der Teufelhof
Leonhardsgraben 49
CH-4051 Basel
Tel.: 0041 61 261 10 10
Fondation Beyeler
Baselstrasse 77
CH-4125 Riehen / Basel
Tel.: 0041 61 645 97 00
Bâle Tourisme
Aeschenvorstadt 36
CH-4010 Basel
Tel.: 004161 268 68 70

Only a short distance from Alsace and the Black Forest, Basel occupies a pivotal position where Switzerland, France and Germany come together. Still little known by the general public, this old humanist and university city crossed by the Rhine is nevertheless Switzerland's cultural capital.

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