Blissful Culture Overdose in Basel, Switzerland
The airport is in France - but your ticket says Switzerland - and the official language is German. Carmen Sandiego, where are we now?
Located on the river Rhine in the northwestern corner of Switzerland, where the borders of Switzerland, France, and Germany meet, Basel is, fittingly, a nexus of Swiss, French, and German culture. With suburbs in all three countries (and that airport on French soil), Basel represents a kind of postmodern EU, where ideas and cultures are as fluid as Schengen Area border crossings.
Since its inception during the Roman Empire, Basel’s position on the river Rhine has insured that cultural exchange has long been a part of Basel’s character. Illustrious thinkers such as the sixteenth-century humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, as well as Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche, settled in Basel - and, more recently, since 1970, Basel has been the host city for Art Basel, the world-renowned contemporary art fair. Often called the "Olympics of the art world," Art Basel’s global reputation (alongside that of its sister exhibition, Art Basel Miami Beach, initiated in 2002), has kept the city of Basel synonymous with art and culture. Which, of course, is to be expected from a city that formed the world’s first public art collection in 1661.
In order to get our bearings amidst this polyglot city, we took the elevator to the top of the Basler Messeturm, which, at 31 stories, is the highest building in all of Switzerland. A glass-sheathed Leviathan in aquamarine, the Messeturm is Basel’s own Loch Ness monster, appearing to rise out of the River Rhine.
Atop the tower, on the 30th and 31st floors, Bar Rouge affords splendid views onto Basel, as well as its tri-country locale. "I see Germany. I see France - and Switzerland. And there in the distance?" Nothing less than the snow-capped peaks of the Alps!
As Switzerland’s third most populous city, Basel is nearly 80% German-speaking - with nearly everyone using English as the lingua franca in dealing with tourists from around the world. Nearly forty museums and many theatres insure a steady flow of visitors - while Basel’s position as a chemical and pharmaceutical center means that there’s always a plethora of business people and conferences.
Approximately the size of the state of Maryland, Switzerland has a population less than New York City - and yet, what an inordinate amount of influence Switzerland has had on European and world culture. As the birthplace of the Red Cross, Nestlé, Swatch, among other multinational corporations, and one of the richest countries in the world, Switzerland has had 113 Nobel Prize winners (including nine Nobel Peace Prize winners). Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1942, and gay people are allowed to serve in the military as well as register their partnerships for the same rights as heterosexual marriages.
Once you’ve returned to terra firma, you can wander Basel on foot - or by tram or Segway. Or take a city bus across the border to Germany to see the Vitra Design Museum. No matter where you wander, whether it’s Old Town Basel, with its medieval Münster (cathedral) or the Renaissance palace that is Basel’s Town Hall, or out to the Basel Zoo (the largest in Switzerland), you’ll encounter an impressive amalgam of European and world culture.
More than 160 nationalities live and work in Basel (with only one in three citizens born in Basel). Take a swim in the Rhine with some of the locals at one of the Art Nouveau lidos - or merely ride one of the four passenger ferries from one side of the Rhine to the other. Get close to the city through its people.
As valuable as the treasures within the museums, it is Basel’s spirit of acceptance and hospitality to all peoples that serves as a hopeful harbinger for the global future.
(Story continues on next page: What to Do, Where to Eat...)