When I first moved to Switzerland, thinking it was just for a year or two, I did my tour of duty, driving through mountain towns and taking the train to the major cities to experience the cheese, the chocolate, and the cows for which the country is known. Soon enough, though, I settled into a comfortable life in Geneva and rarely visited the rest of the cantons, except to go skiing (and that was often in France!).
Having never visited Basel during what eventually became nine years of living in Switzerland, I suddenly spent three separate weekends there last autumn – and I’m finally getting round to writing about it now. (The spread of my visits over three months also explains the varying weather conditions in the photos, although it was never particularly bad.)
Located right at the border of both France and Germany, on the river Rhein, Basel is the country’s third biggest city after Zurich and Geneva. The language spoken is Swiss German, the biggest of the country’s four official languages – the others being French, Italian, and Romansh. (I always wondered how the Swiss football team sings the national anthem together – apparently they do, in fact, sing the anthem in each of their languages simultaneously. A sweet cacophony of melody.)
I’ve always found entering the German-speaking part, not to mention the Italian-speaking part, quite bizarre. You know you’re in the same country, the currency is the same and so are most of the shops… but something isn’t right. The language spoken is different but so are the people, the food, the look and feel of the place. There’s also something familiar in the Germanic side of Switzerland, something that is closer to the Nordic culture than its French side.
There always seems to be something going on in Basel, unless I just happened to have timed my visits incredibly well. My first weekend visit came during the Klosterbergfest, creating a fabulous holiday feeling with caipirinhas and mojitos out in the street on a balmy Friday night. (One day, I’ll have to write about why my all-time Geneva favourite, the Fetes de Geneve.)
Unfortunately for the organisers, it rained the rest of the weekend. We instead went to watch rehearsals for Rent, which I then came back to watch a few weeks later.
And my third weekend visit was arranged so that I could watch my friend Scott on stage as the baddest of all panto villains, the fabulous Botoxia. As a bonus, my visit coincided with the Christmas market.
As it turns out, I missed one of the highlights, the Basler Herbstmesse. A 500-year-old tradition, the Basel Autumn Fair is the biggest and oldest fair in Switzerland. Another event I haven’t yet witnessed is the Basler Fasnacht, in turn the biggest carnival in Switzerland. There’s also Art Basel, an international art show that has even spread to Miami and Hong Kong (and Basel’s Fine Arts Museum has the oldest public collection in the world). So it would seem that there is indeed a lot going on in little Basel.