Friday, June 17, 2005


Thursday of last week we went to Basel. This should have been the one of the high points of the trip. In anticipation I read Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy to get the feel for the intellect of the city (with some attention to Gossmann’s Basel in the Age of Burckhardt). I might be the only American who ever read a detailed account of the little civil war they had in the 1830, splinting the canton in Basel-City and Basel-Country. I wanted to like it. I “kinda” like it. But I had no fun. Basel is an unforgiving city.

Basel has three problems: layout, money, and openings. First, the cityscape is very hilly, and many of the streets are without rationalization. The map that I received from the tourist office gave no indication of the challenges of walking and navigating the city. A walk of a few blocks could entail climbing several hills. Streets that appear adjacent on a map may be, in truth, far apart if altitude is taken into consideration. I wished that elevation were better marked on our poor street map.

Second, everything in Basel is expensive. Even Swiss chocolate is expensive. OK, the watches were reasonably priced, but I hadn’t the money impulsively to drop on one of them. Most paperback books on national and city history were more that 35 francs. One restaurant offered a quesidilla for 25 francs. No, I’m sorry, there’s no way that Mexican food in Switzerland can justify that price.

Finally, the museums almost never open. The Architecture Museum was closed, open only two days per week. The Swiss Museum of Jewish History was closed, open three days per week. We walked around so much looking for these places (see the first problem) that we gave up on Baseler cultural life.

My advice to anyone who wants to visit Basel: plan ahead, plan thoroughly, save up, and take the tram whenever possible.

Despite these problems, there were things about Basel that we enjoyed. As I said, Basel is unusually hilly, and it sits high above the Rhine River. It is the first navigable point on the river, and it is deservingly the first Rhenish city. The houses are beautiful. The propensity to paint the exteriors with faux decorations is stronger than in Sélestat. Our arduous journeys through the streets were rewarded by Renaissance and Classical touches. The best examples come from the Rathaus (city hall), which has numerous tableaus on its facades: myths and histories of antiquity and the confederation.

The first thing we saw, just outside the train station, was Auguste Bartholdi’s The Swiss coming to the aid of Strasbourg during the Siege of 1870. The statue shows angels protecting women and children. The front panel shows the diplomats of the Swiss cities negotiating to send aid to the Strasbourgeoisie; the back shows the history of the relations between the cities in commerce.

The Münster (cathedral) was spectacular. At first we were dissappointed as we walker around the exterior: it was not as well adorned as other Gothic churches we have visited. Eventually I remembered that iconoclasm had been more extensive and violent in Basel than in other German cities during the Reformation (it was comparatively tame in Strasbourg: mayor Jacob Sturm made iconoclasm illegal despite reform). Nonetheless, there were a number of interesting figures to be seen. The adjacent courtyard contained numerous memorial stones to people who were buried therein. There were plenty of Burckhardts, so I looked around for Jacob but failed to find the historian. The space must have been filled by the end of the eighteenth century. (Here are a few extra gems for BRDGT.)

The interior held more interest. For the most part the area of the congregation was sparse. On the sides the crypts of knights and bishops were in good shape. The nave (the front part of the Church, for the clergy, if I have that right) is very high above the congregation, perhaps twenty feet above them. The differences in height create clearly separated spaces, unusual for any Church. The reason for this might be that further crypts were located beneath the nave: perhaps the builders did not want to dig into the hill in order to locate it. At the back of the nave were a row of windows that offered a commanding, almost panoramic view of the city and the river.

The best part of the cathedral was the crypt area, which had numerous frescoes – the lives of saints and such. Unfortunately they have faded away (blame the Protestants for not appreciating a good idol).

The Open Church of Elizabeth is bizarre. No longer in use for worship, it is used as a space for other things. A café operates out of the side. There were long tables and fold-out chairs in place of pews. Where was the disco ball? We couldn’t find it.

Finally, the pond with fountains by Jean Tinguely was fun. Different animated fountains whimsically spewing water into the air. This was the best thing in Basel.

The "nave" is where the people sit (originally stand). The sanctuary is where the alter is. The apse is the eastern end of a cathedral, behind the alter.

I studied theology in Basel in the early 1960s. Loved the hills. The prices were much more reasonable then, though.
Thank you for the clarification. I ought to know my architecture better.
Must have been sleepy: Please change "alter" to "altar." Thanks.
Good Luck!
No offense, but you must be quite lazy if these 'hills' present problems for you.
Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Switzerland, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
Thanks! :)
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