Exploring the corner of Switzerland

Basel is not a large city, but an interestingly shaped one. Basel is in the northwest of Switzerland, situated on a little triangle which borders France to the northwest and Germany to the northeast. If you think of the city as the face of a clock, you can trace the path of the Rhine River, a pale green ribbon, which flows into the city at 3 o’clock, and then after reaching the center, goes back out around 11 am or noon. The more-or-less quadrant that you have cut out with the river is Klein Basel (Little Basel), and that is the part where we are staying.

Not too far north of us (about 30 minutes walking) is the German border. The other three-quarters of the city is Gross Basel (Big Basel) which holds the Altstadt (or Old Town) and most of the inhabitants as well as the other buildings. It only takes a bus about half an hour to go clear across the entire city, but many of the roads trace smaller circles within the larger circle of the city, so it can takes considerably longer to get around. On our second afternoon in the city, we found that Tram 2, which we were counting on taking back, was suddenly out of service because the city was going to re-pave some roads in the center of town. It took an extra 15 minutes to walk all the way back to the train station where we thought we were going to be able to catch the tram before, but we were told to get ourselves on the next 30 bus which would drop us off across the river. It ended up taking nearly 90 minutes for us to get back to the apartment with all the groceries we had promised to pick up.

Construction is not an uncommon thing to see here. Cranes do dot the Basel skyline, and even smaller ones are common in the neighborhood, where folks are having work done on their houses or on the sidewalk. Steve commented that there was so much construction, it kept reminding him of China. Sam indicated that it was a Swiss way of employing people and keeping things spic-and-span. Sometimes, the roads or the buildings don’t need to be redone, but it certainly serves a purpose. To me, it sounds like Switzerland is one of the only countries in the world which is ahead of the game. Most countries are woefully behind.

Another surprising thing is that I had been told that Switzerland was an expensive country. People shook their heads when it came to discussing exactly how much money was necessary to travel and live here. I hadn’t quite thought it an exaggeration, but I thought it was because Switzerland is the home of delicate chocolates and fine watches. Quality goods surely cost more as a matter of fact. However, it’s a little more mundane and sad. The Swiss franc (because Switzerland’s not in the EU!) is more or less equivalent to a US dollar, and it costs an alarming number of Swiss francs to simply feed yourself. A meal out can be exorbitant right off the bat – our weekday lunch menu meal at Happy Wok, a routine Asian restaurant near a train station, cost 31.50 francs. Each of the entrees, for which we both chose chicken, was 15 to 16 francs. Even the cheapest of all meals in Europe, the döner kebab, was 7 to 8 francs, as we saw from passing a kebab joint. When we stopped in a café to get a few things to eat, each small muffin cost about 3 francs and the coffee about 2 francs. So not too shabby for the coffee, but as for the food, it seemed like Starbucks prices. The same (to a lesser degree) goes for the Coop and Migros, two of the common supermarket chains around town. Fruit, vegetables, meat and yogurt all cost just slightly more than you thought it would. Cheese, strangely, was one of the only things that probably cost slightly less than it should because it’s locally produced. And it’s true – so many things are imported from around Switzerland, the cost ends up coming out of the consumer’s pocket. The upside of that is that we have had a lot of quiet, leisurely time at Sarah and Sam’s house, buying groceries and cooking meals together like grilling or pizza with fun toppings and drinking wine or beer here, which all definitely cost less than eating out!

Basel is well-known for its art and its science. The pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry is gigantic, and that employs the better half of the population here. The other half works for the art industry. There are quite a few large museums and galleries here, and Art Basel is an annual event that draws many people internationally. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry actually employs them too, since the large companies like Roche and Novartis fund much of the art through philanthropy here. We were thinking of visiting the Art Museum of Basel, but Sam and Sarah recommended that we go see the Tinguely Museum instead for something slightly different.

For those like us who had never heard of him before, Jean Tinguely was one of the most famous Swiss artists of the post-war period. This museum was built to house more than 20 of his works, and they are all fascinating examples of kinetic sculpture which embody motion and change. They also incorporate elements of sound, audio, and color, ranging from things that seem like a very profound and chilling marriage of iron and bone to ones that are whimsical and silly with feathers and worn-out clothes. He became prominent beginning in the 1950s, and his initial works look like someone had taken a Kandinsky painting, tore it apart, and made it come to life. Each individual piece is set on a cog that rotates in the back of the canvas at a different speed from the others so that the entire tableau, as you see it, changes every second, and never stays the same. In his later works in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he moved onto making art on a bigger and bigger scale. He did installations in the US of works that were meant to auto-destruct in a flash of fireworks and explosions. Two remaining works at the Tinguely Museum are giant, more than a story tall, and are simply large moving machines, each part connected to another. Sometimes, calling it art would have been a far stretch: one piece was an old refrigerator given to Tinguely by the artist Marcel Duchamp (he of Nude Descending A Staircase). Duchamp loved objéts trouvés or found objects, in which trash or discarded things take on new life and new meaning as an art piece. So it was an old disused refrigerator whose only distinction was that Duchamp found it and gave it to Tinguely. To my immense amusement, it was entitled “Frigo Duchamp”. Other art pieces were strangely elegant, like a large iron wheel with accompanying pieces on rails which looked like a locomotive but simply moved in place. Tinguely also liked to create pieces where the consumer of art had to participate in order for the sculpture to move or make a sound, rendering the participant vital to the performance of the art, which I always think is interesting. While Steve and I differed in our view of the museum, it was a satisfyingly different and interesting experience for both of us.

There were several accompanying exhibitions, one from the German body performance artist Rebecca Horn, which was fascinating to see. Horn’s most famous piece of work is the Einhorn or Unicorn, which is a tall tapered cone piece which goes on top of a person’s head, worn together with a strapped uniform which extends over the entire body. Her other pieces on display all reflected some sort of extension of the body, including a pair of black velvet gloves that included two-foot long points at the end of each digit. It was incredibly creepy. Another was a face mask of black straps which held pencils radiating out from the face, and one could simply paint or draw on a piece of paper by moving one’s face back and forth in front of it. It was all very different from the sort of exhibits or the museums that we usually like to go to.

I must also mention the Rhine, which we crossed several times during our trip to Basel. It is a really lovely river that originates in Switzerland, exiting through Basel and curving north as the border between France and Germany before finally entering the Netherlands to join the sea by Rotterdam. This time of year, it is still a bit cool, but when it is nice and warm, what Sam and Sarah do along with hundreds of other Baslers is to jump into the river with their beer and bread in a drybag, and drift downriver to a large park for a picnic. It being too cold for that still, we enjoyed the banks of the Rhine instead. Over the weekend, we had a walk along the river with beers and snacks in hand. We first crossed over the Kraftwerk Birksfelden, a dam on the Rhine that provides both hydroelectric power (100 megawatts!) as well as river locks going both directions. We were lucky enough to find that as we approached, so did two barges, one going north and one going south. Sam and Sarah joked that this was the most reliable tourist attraction in Basel, and sure enough, overall, thirty or forty people, mostly families and children, had gathered to watch the gates close and open, filling with water to allow the large barges to float south and draining so that the ones going north could come down to our level. After watching the barges, we enjoyed our beers and snacks by the Rhine before finding dinner further down the river. To our delight, there were tables available at Le Rhin Bleu, a restaurant that sat on a tall wharf above the Rhine itself. We ordered a young white wine from Alsace and enjoyed fish and steak while watching the sun set slowly. This being the beginning of summer in Europe, it only set around 9:30 pm, by which point we had polished off our dessert and were ready to start back. We had a lovely time walking back through the dusk and the bright half-moon, sharing stories and anticipating Sam and Sarah’s Geneva wedding with their European family and friends.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention visiting France and Germany. On Saturday, we tagged along on their regular Saturday morning adventure. The town of Saint-Louis is rather close and has an excellent market; Sam and Sarah visited their usual vendor, buying all sorts of vegetables for grilling and salads and making food throughout the week. We also bought some cheese (the most excellent Comté), spicy olives, and beignets dusted with sugar, enjoying the sunlight as well as all the French spoken around us. (Steve and I were slightly alarmed to realize we didn’t have any euros, since we’d been spending Swiss francs all week, so that required a quick trip to the ATM.) We picked up lunch at Maison Paul, which provided excellent sandwiches as well as dessert, and enjoyed them back at the house in the garden. On Sunday, we drove to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany just 10 minutes north of where they live in Basel. Vitra is a well-known Swiss design company, and their museum contained hundreds of chairs dating back to the 1800s and many well-designed iterations of famous chairs like the Eames Lounge Chair. It was a neat experience, the funniest of which was the Vitra Clock and Slide, a tall metal structure nearly 5 stories tall which included a spiraling slide. Steve and I each took a turn, and while I screamed some going down, it was the most fun I’ve had outside of a roller coaster!

This morning, we left Basel and Sam and Sarah with some hugs but not too many tears – after all, we are here in Switzerland to celebrate their wedding next Saturday in Geneva. We’ll see them there before long, but before then, the mountains await.

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