Hardworking Basel is one of Switzerland‘s richest cities. But if you dip beneath its surface, you discover the beguiling contradictions that make Basel serious fun.
Until 18:00, Basel is all business. It’s not somewhere you can waltz into a meeting five minutes late – not in this Swiss city whose major industries, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, are all about precision and control.
But when the workday is done, Basel quickly reveals its other, pleasure-loving face.
In summer, hundreds of professionals stroll down to the banks of the Rhine and strip down to their skivvies. Then, they shove their business wear into a waterproof backpack known as a wickelfisch (“fish pack”), jump into the river and let its swift current carry them home.
Andreas Ruby, director of the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, calls it the city’s “liquid form of flâneuring”.
“Sometimes you’ll see groups of people chatting together on the river like old friends. In fact, they’re strangers who’ve happened to catch the same current,” said Ruby.
“A lot of love stories have begun on the Rhine,” he added, with a glint of mischief in his eye.
Located at the exact point where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, Basel, which has a population nearing 200,000, straddles a particularly pastoral bend of the Rhine. From the towers of its Gothic cathedral, you can look north past emerald-green farms and vineyards to see both France’s Vosges Mountains and Germany’s Black Forest.
A lot of love stories have begun on the Rhine
At first glance, it seems a pleasant, if unexciting, place to do business. You might even be tempted to stay on for a quiet weekend exploring Basel’s historical centre, a tidy hodgepodge of the medieval and modern. But if you dip beneath its surface, you discover the beguiling contradictions that make Basel serious fun.
Appropriate to a city with deep Calvinist roots, a lot of that fun literally happens underground. In basements along the back alleys of the historical centre, groups of revellers called Cliques gather month after month to prepare for Basel’s raucous, 72-hour Carnival celebration.
Known as Fasnacht, Basel’s Carnival is a peculiar mixture of discipline and booze-fuelled jollity. Unesco added Fasnacht to its list of intangible culture heritage in 2017 because it is so deeply embedded into the city’s contemporary culture whilst also preserving centuries-old traditions.
Usually, Carnival is a last blowout before Lent, the time in the Christian calendar for penance and sober reflection. But this being Basel, Fasnacht actually begins on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday – that is, after Lent has already begun. Stranger still is the fact that Basel celebrates Fasnacht at all. Other Protestant cities began banning the festival in the 16th Century, considering it sinfully pagan. Basel’s leaders actually tried to do the same, but Baselers insisted on their right to party. Today Fasnacht is one of the only Protestant Carnivals in the world.
But Fasnacht is not exactly a Bacchanalian free-for-all, like the carnivals of New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. “It definitely has its rules,” said Judith Kakon, an artist and Basel native.
For example, only members of Cliques are allowed to wear costumes; civilians are expected to wear street clothes. And the festival always begins with Swiss precision at exactly 04:00. That’s when the power company shuts off all the streetlamps and suddenly the historic centre is illuminated by the light of thousands of handmade lanterns. And while there is plenty of drinking, it’s considered gauche to get falling-down drunk.
Partly, that’s so people can keep going nonstop for three days and nights of costumed parades and Guggeskonzerten (brass band concerts) and bar-hopping. But partly it’s so they can keep their wits about them.
“They want to be able to critique all the songs and poems and costumes,” explained Kakon.
After all, Fasnacht also has important business to conduct. Masked figures burst into cafes and recite poems, taking humorous and often biting swipes at both global and local powerbrokers. Recent targets have ranged from Kim Jong-un and Angela Merkel to the decision by Basel’s police force to purchase a Tesla. As Unesco puts it, Fasnacht is “a huge satirical magazine where all visual or rhetorical means are used to make fun of flaws and blunders” from the previous year.
Above all, Fasnacht is a “huge collective art project,” said Kakon – a shared reaffirmation of the city’s commitment to beauty.
It is no coincidence that Art Basel is the world’s most important art fair, according to Anita Haldemann, deputy director of Kunstmuseum Basel, widely considered Switzerland’s finest art museum. “Art is the DNA of the city,” she said.
This reverence of art for art’s sake is a little surprising. After all, Protestant practicality and hard work run deep – and they have paid off handsomely. With an average income of 185,826 Swiss francs (approx. £154,000), according to the most recent government figures, Basel is one of Switzerland’s richest cities per capita.
Art is the DNA of the city
And a great deal of that wealth goes to support the arts. In fact, Kunstmuseum Basel is the oldest civic museum in Europe. Its core collection was acquired by the city in 1661 and made available to the public soon thereafter. And there are still some huge private collections in the city. “Sometimes we don’t even know what they have,” Haldemann said.
But the wealthy don’t just hoard their goods. “There is social pressure on the rich to support the arts,” added Ruby.
But with typical Swiss discretion, patrons often do so on the down low.
“Many families give money anonymously,” said Haldemann. “Sometimes, it’s $10,000 a year, sometimes much more.”
Contemporary architecture is another of Basel’s aesthetic passions. In the city and its hinterland, you can visit works by no fewer than 12 Pritzker Prize winners, from Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to the hometown shop of Herzog + de Meuron.
But in Basel’s self-effacing way, there are no massive, attention-grabbing buildings, like, say, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum or Seville’s Metropol Parasol. While contemporary works are often playful and sophisticated, they also tend towards an almost monastic simplicity.
This blending of the plain and the sumptuous is especially evident in the Kunstmuseum’s newest wing, opened in 2016. Designed by local firm Christ & Gantenbein, it is all greys and rough textures, yet its light-filled entrance and galleries are arrestingly beautiful. The new wing even evoked quasi-religious language from critics, including The Guardian’s Rowan Moore, who wrote that it “transcends genre” to achieve the “miraculous”.
However, art in Basel is not just confined to museums. It is thoroughly distributed across the city’s outdoor spaces and becomes integral to the pleasure of daily life, as in the square outside the Theater Basel, which is home to both a massive Richard Serra sculpture and a Dada-esque fountain full of Jean Tinguely’s Fasnacht-inspired kinetic works. The Swiss Architecture Museum sits on the east side of square, and Ruby says that at night students with bottles of wine and beer turn the space into an open-air bar. “And the Serra sculpture becomes a giant pissoir (public toilet),” he adds, with surprisingly good humour for a museum curator.
The city’s 300 or so public fountains are another institution where art, pleasure and public good merge in unlikely ways. Many are not only beautiful, but also big enough to bathe in. And in summer, many Baselers do.
A favourite is Pisoni-Brunnen (Pisoni fountain), just down the street from the Kunstmuseum and in the stern shadow of the city’s massive, 1,000-year-old cathedral. Like many of Basel’s fountains, it is an 18th-Century work of restrained Baroque elegance. It’s also large enough to cool off half a dozen or more people on hot day.
Soon after moving to Basel from Berlin, Ruby says he was surprised one summer afternoon to see a very proper-looking, 70-year-old woman lying at ease in a public fountain.
“She was wearing a big sunhat, reading a magazine and just chilling,” he said.
As he was watching, a boy came up and filled his plastic bottle from the fountain’s spout. After all, the water in the Basel’s fountains is not just refreshing – it is also drinking-grade.
For all its sophistication, moments like this can make hard-working Basel seem like a chilled-out party town. And the relatively small dimensions of the city add to this sense of ease and cohesiveness, said Ruby.
The city is for coming together
When he lived in Berlin, he explained, making plans involved lots of negotiation, since everyone was busy, had long commutes and lived so far away from each other. But in Basel, you are never more than 10 minutes away by bike from a central meeting point.
“The city is for coming together,” Ruby said. “It is owned by a population, not a corporation. It is like a giant public space.”
On a sunny day, the kilometre-long promenade on the north bank of the Rhine is the ideal place to catch this spirit. It functions as the city’s de facto beach, and of course you can swim in the river. Just be warned that the river may carry you away from your valuables. Better to stick them in a wickelfisch, which are available at the Basel Tourist Office for 30 Swiss francs (about £25).
After sunset, head a few blocks north to Hirscheneck, a sparking-clean, collectively owned bar and restaurant that keeps Fasnacht spirit alive year-round. Upstairs, delicious, French-inflected food and local beers are, by Swiss standards, reasonably priced. And the basement doubles as a dance club, as well as a forum for high-minded aesthetic and political discussions.
A great place to end your day, Hirscheneck is, like the fountains and Fasnacht and so much else in Basel, serious fun.
News from BBC Travel