Gareth Huw Davies

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Basel, ancient and modern Swiss city on the Rhine

Fondation Beyeler, Basel, with Monet's Le Bassin aux Nymphéas

Fondation Beyeler, Basel, with Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas

Basel, where Liverpool played Sevilla in the Europa League final on May 18th, is entry-level Switzerland, very close to the border with Germany and France. It straddles the River Rhine, at the top of the country. It’s within a comfortable train journey from the UK –  about six hours from London

Its heart is small, picturesque and easy to walk, despite the hills. Places worth a visit include what is probably the world’s smallest museum, an ancient river ferry, 102 fountains, and a beautifully sylvan out-of-town art gallery designed by the architect of London’s Shard.

Founded on the pharmaceutical industry, with some of the biggest companies based here, this ancient and modern city (there are many examples of contemporary architecture), Basel is a departure from the Swiss national stereotype.

Basel – entry-level Swiss city on the Rhine, for a start. It’s on a mighty river, the Rhine, not a lake. There were no snowy mountains in sight on our visit, only the green and gently rolling Black Mountains of Germany close by. The border is close to the terminus of the number 8 tram line.  It’s a short stroll from there to a pole where three nations touch.

We stayed at the convenient and comfortable Hotel D, a good base for a city visit, with no superfluous luxury. As all city hotels do, they gave us free “go anywhere” public transport passes, which make getting  about exceptionally easy.

Trams are the superior form of public transport here. They glide  elegantly to all points, sometimes only seconds apart. Sample a few at random, and you’ll see most of the city.

On our visit, the Rhine is flowing menacingly high, after a wet summer. When we first saw the river, the idea of crossing it on one of the four “reaction” ferries, which operate to a very old river-crossing principle, looked like some ancient ordeal by water.

The boat had no engine, but the man who took our money wore a smile that suggests “you’ll be quite safe”. The small wooden craft, which cross at different points in the city, are attached to a high wire, stretched across the river, by a long moveable lead. The prow faces into the flow. All the helmsman does is steer the boat like a sailor tacking into the wind, using only the current’s power. I imagine the Romans devising a Rhine-crossing solution like this. After only a few minutes, shuffling sideways, we were over. Apparently the stronger the current, the quicker the crossing. We were very quick.

Basel has many other fine churches, museums and galleries, conventional and unique. One example is the Cartoonmuseum, said to be the only museum in the world devoted exclusively to satirical art – from the caricature to the comic.

Our favourite was out of town. For a few precious moments, in a gallery room flooded with natural light, we were all alone with one of the dreamiest of artist Monet’s aquatic paintings, the Water-lily Pond. It is rare to enjoy this kind of solitude in crowded, city centre galleries. It was worth the 20 minute trip on the number 16 tram from the city centre for that alone.

The Fondation Beyeler gallery, a low, glass-clad building backing onto open fields and a gentle hill lined with vineyards, has a link to central London. Beyeler, a prodigious art collector in the city, wanted a home for his collection. He commissioned Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed  London’s Shard. Piano, who also designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has made this little gallery a destination in itself. Artists represented here include Degas, Seurat, Lichtenstein, Picasso and Miro.

Back in the city, we experienced a touristic cameo to treasure.

Inside the 1000 year-old cathedral, a determined little French lady approached us and asked if we could point out the slab commemorating Erasmus. The free-thinking Dutch theologian became ill during a stay in the city in 1536 and was buried in this fine cathedral, a striking landmark above old Basel with its red sandstone, and green and yellow roof tiles. It couldn’t be that difficult, but the three of us hunting together failed to find Erasmus.

The French lady asked at the desk. Our search was narrowed to one corner of the nave, but we still couldn’t find the slab. She asked again. This time, success. It was behind a pillar that seemed to have mysteriously sprouted since we looked last.

The Old Town is a place of chance encounters. In one steep and narrow road we found a door that never opens. That’s because the door itself is a museum, said to be the world’s smallest. The owners of 31 Imbergässlein were tired of people peering nosily through the glass, and decided to give them something to look at in the door itself. That idea inspired the Hoosesagg (Trouser Pocket) Museum.

In the window section of the door they display random objects in small wooden compartments. Recent displays have included fire engines, storks and Swissair planes. They can mount a special exhibition in five minutes flat. In the summer of 2014 they staged an exhibition of items to mark the World Cup in Brazil. It’s a brilliant concept, and it’s free. Nobody bothers the people living inside. And small children are given an easy introduction to museum-going.

In another narrow street you’re invited to plan the festive season throughout the year. Johann Wanner’s Christmas House, in Spalenberg, is a city institution. It was here where Hillary Clinton bought decorations for the White House, and Princess Diana paid a visit. Items are expensive, but quality is high. Next door is a cupcake shop of distinction. These are only two of many smart independent shops in this and adjoining streets.

One unexpected bonus in the city centre is a facility a visitor would normally expect to find on the edge of town. The University Botanic Gardens (free) is a short walk from the Old Town. The hot glasshouses are a welcome refuge in a cold day. Other interesting Basel features include the fountains, 102 of them. The only one you can’t drink from is the Tinguely Fountain, full of moving devices made from old theatre machinery.

If you want a quiet day on which to visit Basel, let me recommend August 1. This is the Swiss National Day, and, on our visit, the only work going on was the street cleaning after the fireworks the night before. (Yes, even the Swiss leave litter.) We had seen the spectacular display in a dense throng in the middle of the main bridge over the Rhine.

The next day, Friday, the city was eerily quiet, with only a few wandering tourists. But by the evening the crowds were back, pressing along the animated river banks, and enjoying the live music outside the waterside restaurants.

Basel Tourist Board

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