A visiting friend, Pat, and I went to the town of Basel last month while Heath stayed home with the baby (a very nice break for me, since I’m almost never without my toddler for very long). Situated on the Rhine at the edge of northwestern Switzerland where France and Germany meet, it has been on my list of places to visit since we moved here.
We went on a very hot Sunday, and the city was very quiet and empty. We got a little lost when exploring the altstadt, and I suspect missed many of the best parts of it, so a trip back is in order. There are also a ton of museums there to go back and explore. I think maybe Heath and I should make a weekend trip out of it sometime soon.
When we arrived, we first went to the Tourist Information booth, which is always a good idea in Switzerland, as you can usually find tons of brochures and maps in all different languages. Also, if you are looking for something specific, the staff can generally assist you.
I was surprised, then, to find out that of all the brochures in the Basel Tourist Information booth, there wasn’t a single map. Upon inquiry, we found that we had to pay 50 Rappen (about 45 cents) for a map. The map didn’t have all the tiny streets in the altstadt, nor did it have the area where the Dreiländereck could be found. Very disappointing, especially since we had to purchase the map.
Pat and I started with the Historisches Museum Basel (Basel History Museum), which is spread out in four locations across the city. We decided to go to the Barfuüsserkirche, which is housed in late Gothic church. The contents of the museum are also mainly religious in theme, with absolutely gorgeous triptychs, carved gold and bejeweled monstrances, and artifacts related to daily life in the Basel area from the Middle Ages through the Baroque eras.
In a side room was a fascinating exhibit of pieces of a wall called the Basel Dance of Death. Basically, around the time of the Black Plague in the 1400’s, a wall was erected near the Rhine in the city and on it were painted scenes of Death “dancing” with various members of society. It was meant to show that no one was immune from death. In 1805, the wall was destroyed, but some citizens managed to save some of the scenes from the wall and they are now displayed in the museum. It was fascinating, though haunting and beautiful, and included people from all walks of life from kings and queens to shepherds and maidens. I’d highly recommend going to the museum just to see that small exhibit.
Next up we visited the Rathaus. Every town has one, and they are the seat of the government offices. Basel’s Rathaus dates back to 1504, with later additions up through the 19th century. It is painted a brilliant red, and like many buildings in Switzerland, adorned with various people and stories painted on it. We could only enter part of the building, as the rest of it was closed on Sundays. The biggest surprise was finding an A Capella group there who randomly started singing “Blue Moon” when we entered.
As we were wandering and fighting with the maps, we came across a street full of medieval and renaissance houses. I’ve no clue where we were, but I only mention it, because of a sex shop we stumbled across. There were the usual expected items on display, but the item that grabbed my attention was a cow-shaped condom. I keep my blog safe for reading at work, so I’ll only link the picture here. Right next door to the sex shop was a beautiful window display of all kinds of quills and nibs and ink jars. I’ve no patience to write by hand, much less with a quill, but I can appreciate the art.
After a bit more wandering, we found the Basel Münster located on the edge of the Rhine and the lovely Münsterplatz. Again, our bad luck of it being Sunday, and the midst of services meant that the inside was unavailable. But the outside was pretty darn impressive. We could also wander through part of the building next to the cloister courtyard. Plus, as is common in summer, the church was under construction. I hope to visit it again to get a peek inside.
Our last adventure of the day was a quest to find the Dreiländereck, or three corners, where Switzerland, France, and Germany meet. This is where our touring went completely off the map. Not only did we explore the Dreiländereck, but we also got a free boat ride with a nice older gentleman, and went up to the top of a warehouse to get a roof-top view of the city! The Dreiländereck is not well-advertised in any tourist book or web site, and for good reason. The area where you can find it is completely industrial with railway lines and docks and warehouses. I guess growing up in the US where you can potentially stand on four states at once it seems like a novelty. Visiting the Dreiländereck is not all that common, by any means, and it took a bit of research on my part to figure out how to do it.
Currently, the Dreiländereck is technically in the middle of the Rhine, not on dry land. Up until 1919, the Dreiländereck was located in a tiny town called Pfetterhouse, which is on the French side of the border about an hour’s drive south-west of Basel and the current location. So, unless you take a boat, you can’t really stand on the Dreiländereck. There is a nearby footbridge (which you can see in the background of the picture above), but that only goes between France and Germany.
We started out by figuring out which city tram would get us to that end of the city. We stopped for lunch along the way at the only place that looked good in the area we were, Sam’s Pizza Land. It had a list of pizzas on the menu all named after different US states. I believe that Pat had the Oklahoma pizza, and it was quite tasty. I actually can’t remember what I had, because I was pretty tired and overheated by that point.
Back to hunting down the Dreiländereck. We got on the correct tram (the number 8, I believe), and took it to the end of the line. When we got off, though, I was confused by the map, and couldn’t figure out where we were. I’d confused a very large canal with the actual Rhine. A very nice German lady pointed us in the right direction, though. We walked over railway lines, and past echoing alleyways between warehouses, saw huge cranes for lifting containers on and off barges. The Rhine, when we finally reached it, is enormous, and in no way like the canal I saw when we first stepped off the tram. We wandered down a small dirt path along the river, and just when we were ready to give up, Pat spotted a cluster of flags next to a strange modern triangle-shaped building.
We also realized that we were trapped on a peninsula that stuck out alongside the river with a deep shipping canal on one side. My original idea was to walk along the river to Germany, then take the foot bridge across to France, then take a known public ferry from France to Switzerland. To reach our goal of setting foot on Germany and France, we’d have to first get to the footbridge in the distance, meaning we’d have to walk back along the peninsula, walk up the river, and walk across the German border, probably a couple mile walk. At this point, we’d walked around the city quite a bit, and it was extremely hot and sunny, so we didn’t think we were up for it.
As Pat was taking the above picture, an older gentleman, probably in his 70’s, on a tiny boat covered in solar panels called out to me. I tried to make out what he said, but couldn’t understand him. He repeated in English “do you want a ride to the bridge?” We were a bit suspicious, naturally, but he seemed friendly and while there was no official state sign on his boat, there was a business name and phone number on it. Pat figured that unless he pulled a gun on us, he could easily take him and the boat driver. I was only worried that if we had to swim for it, I would ruin my camera. Since this is Switzerland after all, and most folks are really trustworthy, we decided to go for it.
We discovered that this boat is private, and that on Sunday afternoons the owner offers free rides back and forth between Switzerland and Germany to promote his business. He rents out his boats to people wanting to take private tours of the river around Basel. Just as they un-moor the boat and push off, an enormous barge starts turning to get in the canal on the other side of the peninsula, making a few waves, and casually reminding my dumb butt that I get sea sick. I was ok after we got going.
It was a short ride down-river to the German border, and we hopped out and wandered across the footbridge, sat on the French side watching people feed the swans, and rested in the shade. We did not go to get our passports stamped. Why? Because we’d both completely forgotten them back at the flat!
We noticed that the boat was starting to head back to the German port, and not wanting to miss a free ride back, we hoofed it back across the footbridge and down to the dock. As we were leaving, I couldn’t help giggling and quoting a line from the movie Coneheads: “France. I come from France.”
Instead of dropping us off at our original departure point at the end of the peninsula, he took us into the huge shipping canal (kind of scary when you saw how enormous the barges were compared to us). Our guide mentioned that there was a warehouse that we could take the elevator to the top, and see the whole city from the rooftop. He was very insistent that we should go check it out, and made sure we knew which ware house it was, and that we had to hurry, because it closed at 5PM.
When we docked at the end of the canal, we were very close to the warehouse, and it was on our way back to the tram stop, so we decided to go for it. We went down a dodgy alleyway, and found this sign above a set of stairs.
We went up the stairs, turned right (there was a locked gate on the left) and walked up to a door that simply had a public service announcement flyer about the swine flu posted on it. I was pretty wigged out, but we went in. Just inside there was a dark dingy stairwell, an elevator, and an unlit warehouse room ahead of us. There was a layer of dust and grime on everything, and I felt like I was in a horror movie. I was now quite sure that the kindly gentleman had set a trap for us, and our mutilated bodies would be later dumped in the canal, never to be seen again.
There was a hand written sign that I think said we could go to the top for 5 swiss francs, but no other human was around. We shrugged and got in the rickety elevator. When we got to the top, there is a small platform with some benches, and one lone other man smoking a cigarette and looking out over France. He leaves shortly after we step out onto the platform. We take a few quick pictures, but it isn’t all that scenic as we’re still in the middle of the industrial area, and it was a hot and hazy day. We took the elevator back down and the smoking man from the rooftop was sitting in a now-lit office just inside the warehouse (the latter of which was still dark and scary looking). We hover near the elevator for half a minute, but he doesn’t say anything to us, so we go to leave, not sure if he’s hoping he’ll get 10 francs off us. He waves us on, and when we get to the other side of the warehouse door, slams it behind us. I think he just didn’t want to mess with us non-German speaking tourists.
After that, we took the tram all the way back to the train station and got the next train back to Winterthur.
Overall, I’d say that Basel is really interesting, and I want to go back to check out more of the museums. The Dreiländereck was sort of interesting, but if I go again, I’ll have my passport so I can get it stamped. The rickety elevator ride to no where? Nuh-uh. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone… not that I could find it again if I tried. *shudder*