It’s no secret I’m not a fan of Switzerland, or rather Geneva specifically. However, when I was travelling to France to learn all about Champagne and the Knights Templar, my easiest port of call (in order to avoid the chaos of crossing Paris) was to fly from Budapest to Basel and back.
Located on the cusp of France and Germany tucked into its suburban corners, Basel boasts a cosmopolitan reputation, as a city embedded truly in the heart of Europe. I decided to give Switzerland another chance for a few days before returning.
Basel may still embrace the elements of Switzerland I’m no fan of: its prices, its strict rules, its sterility, but it’s a fascinating city bursting with art and history. For a while, Hermann Hesse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Hans Holbein the Younger resided in Basel for a time.
It was raining when I arrived by the banks of the Rhein in the morning, and even then the colours of the houses almost hanging by the river gave off a certain kind of sedate beauty. The city felt empty as I aimlessly wandered, taking in the city’s architecture, both Central European in a Germanic way with beamed houses and rectangular proportions, but different from the more frivolous Austro-Hungarian style I find closer to home.
The cobbles glisten with rain, paving the streets with shiny walkways leading up the hill round winding alleys, getting narrower in parts, then stretching into wide boulevards against white-washed and pastel-hued houses with no fleck of paint out of place. Basel undulates on hills on one side and lies flat on the other. The bridge across the olive shaded water sports tiled turrets with arrow slits, making it the perfect spot to shoot pictures.
Back in the city, despite the rain a market is in full swing beneath the crimson façade of the town hall glimmering with gold and painted dark green leaves. With large wheels of cheeses, freshly picked mushrooms and brilliant vegetables, vendors tempt customers to their seductive produce. And I feel hungry already.
It’s time for a brunch of raclette served with potatoes and pickles with a glass
of Fendant, a white grape that’s high in acid, which helps cut through the buttery texture of the decadent cheese, at Walliser Kanne. Fuelled up on cheesy calories (won’t be the last on this trip — can’t leave without fondue, as pictured) it was time to hike the hills again.
En route, I picked up a leaflet listing a selection of walking tours inspired by Basel’s historic intellectuals for inspiration, rather than wandering around the city where my whims take me (as I usually do).
I mix and match my route, a little bit of Erasmus around the historic centre. A taste of the winding lanes of the former craftsmen’s district and the university quarter around the Spalentor with Thomas Platter, which takes me past a vibrant flea market where chandeliers glint in the sun that finally made an appearance. Then I head down the hill and immerse myself in the art world with Jacob Burckhardt which takes me to the animated cogs and turns of the Yves Tanguey fountain, and finally to the canals behind the Paper Mill with Holbein.
When it comes to art, Basel has a reputation to uphold. Apart from the annual Art Basel fair, it’s also a city where
you can throw a stone and hit a museum. There are nearly 40 museums and it’s impossible to choose. I picked the Kunstmuseum at first for my dose of art history.
The collection is vast, covering the history of Western art from the 15th century to the contemporaries, and it’s not focussed solely on Swiss artists. You’ll find an amazing collection featuring: Holbein, Van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, Degas, Miró, Dürer, Monet, and more. It’s easy to get over saturated with good art, so I recommend anyone visiting to either take multiple trips or focus on an area you’re passionate about. Basel’s Kunstmuseum has an incredible collection of 20th century avant-garde art, featuring a great cubist and abstract collection, as well as classical modernism.
The other museum was the Paper Mill, a curiosity in Basel’s museum catalogue.
Set close to the banks of the Rhine, interlinking with picturesque canals and beamed houses hanging over the water, the mill is still operational. A large wooden wheel still churns through the water running the mill that’s been operational for 500 years. The museum is a curiosity featuring a live display of paper in the making, and the history of paper and printing presented hands on.
Basel is a city with fascinating stories to tell. It’s a place where art and humanism flourished and allowed free thinkers to bloom. Walk in the footsteps of Holbein and Erasmus in this city that feels like the heart of Europe.