When in Switzerland … Don’t Miss Basel

Basler Muenster  © Basel Tourismusby Barbara Bagnell

Back in the 1980s, as a lone traveller, I spent a few days in Basel, Switzerland.   During a day there, I took a one- hour train to Zurich, admired the smart shops on the main street, took a ferry ride completely around Lake Zurich, returned to the rail station and took a train to Lucerne.  There I sat in an outdoor café surrounded by scarlet geraniums, had a glass of wine, and returned by train to Basel.  That’s how easy it is in Switzerland to visit, with ease and little travel time, two renowned cities while staying in a third!  Even then, I was carrying a Eurail pass, which included my trip on the ferry as well as the trains.  Then in the 1990s, Ken and I travelled in Switzerland with a Swiss pass, still available, which covers buses, boats, and trains .   (See TSS, June 1996, if you’ve kept them that long.  I have. )   Our arrival this year in Basel , Switzerland’s third largest city,  was from Bruges, via Cologne and using a Eurail pass. (www.ACPRail.com for a Eurail or a Swiss pass).

We were met at our hotel by a large smiling man called Nick.  Nick and his wife Jasmina own and operate the Micro Hotel where we stayed for five nights.  Theirs is a story of emigration, hardship, industry and imagination.  She is Croatian, he is Serbian.  They arrived in Basel 26 years ago with not a word of the local language, German.  They took menial jobs, learned the language, ran a restaurant, formed a small contracting company with Nick’s skills, and learned hospitality from Jasmina’s work in hotels.  In June 2010 they opened the nine-room Micro Hotel, born of a narrow brick building which Nick and a friend renovated .

We had a spacious room with bath on the fourth floor. Décor is modern and functional, comfortable without  frills. We had a balcony with table and chairs overlooking Bleichestrasse.  Rooms on the back overlook pleasant neighborhood gardens and have a large terrace.  There is one suite which is two-storey with living room and even larger terrace.   Breakfast is in a ground floor café, presided over by Jasmina’s sister-in-law who speaks no English, but makes great coffee.  Ham, cheese, fruit, berries, buns, bread, yoghurt and juice gave us a hearty start to the day.

We were a three-minute walk from Tram No. 6 in “new” Basel – the part on the north side of the Rhine – it’s hundreds of years old but not as old as “old” Basel on the south side.   There were lots of shops and restaurants  within ten minutes’ walk.   We dined out our first night and found that the kind of simple pastas we’d had in Italy for €6 (about C$7.85 ) cost SF20 (C$22), so we located Denner’s supermarket at Riehenstrasse and Hammerstrasse, brought back food to our balcony table and dined there the rest of our evenings in Basel.  (Note the address of Denner’s .  There’s another near Claraplatz which is dark and crowded, unlike the one we patronized.)   Wine is very reasonably priced in supermarkets.  One day we met an acquaintance for a typical Swiss lunch at Restaurant Walliser Kanne where various fondues are on the menu as well as Wiener Schnitzel prepared at your table.

Basel has an abundance of museums, 30 in all.  The city’s Museum der Kulturen  is not just about Swiss culture but cultures around the world.  It displays the most amazing ceiling-soaring tapestry from Papua ,New Guinea and, nearby, an ancient pair of snow goggles made of whale bone by a member of Canada’s Inuit.  The city’s history is beautifully displayed at Barfusserkirche, a late-Gothic former Franciscan  church which still has its stained glass windows and hushed atmosphere. But note that now it has a café with a fully stocked bar.   It’s been a museum since 1894 and  I felt this old church made a more attractive museum than many purpose built museums.   (www.hmb.ch)

One sight which defines Basel is the Munster, the red sandstone cathedral beside the Rhine, built between 1019 and 1500,as a Catholic place of worship, but  now a Protestant church.  When you’re standing outside, just be still and absorb the beautiful colours of the sandstone – it’s pink here and rose there and maroon elsewhere, each shade melding into the other.

From our hotel, we could walk in about 20 minutes to the banks of the Rhine where a wide promenade is well used by cyclists,  walkers with or without dogs and groups of school children.  And crossing the river in four locations are odd little ferry boats attached to a cable, pulled only by the river’s current – no motor. (Return trip SF3.20.)  We took one over to a 120 step stairway up to the Cathedral, walked to a nearby museum and returned  to ‘our’ side of the river by the same boat.

Like all Basel hotels, the Micro gave us a “mobility ticket” to use on the trams.  It’s not even necessary to show it to the driver, just have it on your person. We became familiar with the trams, even using # 10 all the way out of town to Fluh, whence we caught  bus 69 to Mariastein with its inviting cafes and ancient church.  The ride through green countryside, well used by hikers and cyclists, is a welcome look at the Swiss countryside.   (This longer trip is not covered by the mobility ticket.)

We crossed the Rhine on a tiny ferry and ascended 120 steps to the rosy coloured Munster with its colourful tile roof (B.Bagnell)   If you’re in Basel on a Sunday morning, there’s a vintage tram ride through the city’s 2,000-year history.  The one hour ride begins at 10.30 and another at 11.30 with a multilingual guide on board.  We also took a guided walk with art historian Rudolf Suter through old Basel, which rises on two hills either side of city centre. We passed a house where theologian Erasmus (1466-1536) lived, but learned but it was already 200 years old when Erasmus moved in.  For a touch of modernity we stopped at the Jean Tinguely Fountain – a 20th century sculpture using old metals from a long-gone theatre.  Basel has about 70 fountains and people fill their water bottles from them.

We returned to the Micro Hotel each evening.  On our last, we were invited to share Jasmina’s birthday cake with the family on the hotel’s patio adjoining the breakfast room.   The next morning Jasmina and Nick saw us off at Viking Cruises’ dock in Basel.  We were scheduled to see more of the Rhine on a river cruise, but that’s another story.

Practical Information:   Our Eurail pass was good for 15 days travel in two months.  In our five weeks in Europe we made good use of it.  www.ACPRail.com .   Micro Hotel charges SF200 Swiss Francs for a double room with breakfast, free wifi, small fridge.  www.microhotel.ch/index_en.html  Currently the Swiss Franc costs about $1.10 Canadian. ATM’s are readily found and money can be changed at both of Basel’s rail stations. Basel hotels have combined to offer a weekend in Basel for as little as SF87.50 in 2, 3 or 4 star hotels. The offer includes hotel, breakfast, mobility ticket for trams and a museum pass for 24 hours. Tax and service are included.  Inquire at www.Basel.com  or [email protected].     The city also offers a variety of tours.  Information at [email protected].

Grossbasler Rheinufer © Niklaus Buergin