The best of Basel
Justine Tyerman takes a break from the breathtaking alps to visit tranquil Basel, the art and culture capital of Switzerland and chats to three wise old men.
The first thing I noticed about Basel is the absence of mountains, an unusual feature in a country dominated by big, bossy peaks that crowd your consciousness, and jostle and clamour for attention all the time.
The landscape is gentler in the north-west corner of Switzerland than in the alpine areas, so there is time and energy to focus on quieter, more refined pursuits without feeling the need to go hiking high peaks and yodelling every day. I love the alps but it’s quite exhausting up there with all those 4000-metre-plus peaks yelling ‘‘Look at me! Look at me!’’
An overdose of scenery that takes your breath away and causes heart palpitations is surely injurious to the health. Besides, I got tired of saying ‘‘Wow!’’ every few minutes.
After 10 days in the mountains, I was suffering massive sensory overload and found Basel delightfully leisurely and undemanding by comparison. And my heart, lungs and leg muscles enjoyed the respite too.
Basel is a graceful city dissected by the beautiful Rhine River, which exerts a peaceful, tranquil influence on the compact metropolis of 200,000 people, Switzerland’s third most populous city.
The city is known as the art and culture capital of Switzerland. There are 40 museums within 37 square kilometres, making it an absolute paradise for art aficionados.
I visited two of them, the Fondation Beyeler and the Kunstmuseum, both world famous.
I went to the Beyeler to see my favourite Monet. Sadly, it and 50 other Monets had moved on a few months earlier but two masterpieces remained, including the luminous six-metre-long Le bassin aux nympheas, which had me utterly mesmerised.
The lack of Monets meant I paid more attention to the excellent exhibition of the moment, Paul Klee, and his contribution to the development of abstract art in Europe. The central strands of his work are nature, architecture, music and written characters, as I discovered.
I also learned about the founders of the museum, celebrated art dealers Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, who assembled a collection of fine works of classical modernism over 50 years.
At the Kunstmuseum, I was introduced to Marc Chagall, a RussianFrench artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. Chagall was torn between two worlds – his hometown of Vitebsk in Belorussia and Paris where he lived from 1911 until 1914. In this early creative phase he combined his recollections of Russian provincial life with iconic fragments of Paris, both evident in the stunning works on display.
The city is the venue for one of the world’s most important contemporary art fairs – Art Basel – founded in 1970 by Ernst Beyeler of Fondation Beyeler fame. The fair is held in June each year and brings the international art world together showing the works of more than 4000 artists.
Our excellent local guide Philippe took us on a tour of the old town, among the best preserved in Europe, with its ‘‘belle epoque’’ mansions, quaint narrow alleyways, many fountains and statues.
Basler Munster, (Basel Minster), a heritage site of national significance, is one of the city’s main landmarks. The red sandstone architecture, coloured roof tiles and slim towers stand out on the horizon. Originally a Catholic cathedral and today a Reformed Protestant church, it was built between 1019 and 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic styles. The choristers were singing like angels when I went back later to have a closer look.
The magnificent Basel Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to the early 1500s. The paintings on the fac¸ade and sculptures in the courtyard and clock tower are astounding. Opposite the Rathaus, a colourful street market sells flowers and fresh produce every Saturday morning.
The Tinguely Fountain, created in 1977, is made up of water-spouting machine parts set in an enormous pool of water on the site of the old city theatre. The nine iron sculptures are in constant motion and ‘‘talk’’ to each other like the actors and dancers who once performed on this spot.
Philippe showed us some quirky sights, too. The Rock Wall in downtown Basel is a massive mural dedicated to classic rock legends like Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Madonna, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and many others. The Beatles’ album cover Abbey Road is integrated into the design with George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon walking across that famous pedestrian crossing.
We walked down the street where, on April 1, 1984, Basler Radio announced a ski race between World Cup stars Bernhard Russi and Andy Wenzel on the Spalenberg in the middle of the city. It was mid-spring so listeners assumed it was an April Fools’ joke – however snow was carted by truck from the ski resort Langenbruck and the slalom race actually did take
place. That was the joke.
Philippe described with great gusto, the three-day madness that descends on the city during Basler Fasnacht, Switzerland’s largest carnival. The event dates back to the medieval tradition of fasting at Lent before Easter and involves colourful street parades, costumes, music and much revelry.
Getting around Basel is a dream, thanks to the super-efficient tram network that criss-crosses the city. Guests staying in hotels are issued with a mobility card which provides free public transport. From January 1, the card also gave guests free ferry transport and half-price city tours and museum and theatre tickets, a real drawcard for tourists. The trams even run to France and Germany and at the Dreilandereck (the three countries’ corner), the countries intersect so you can hop from one to the other.
In a city imbued with such history, art and culture, it was fitting to stay at the iconic Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, The Three Kings, a museum and art gallery in its own right.
Les Trois Rois is the epitome of elegance and old-world style, rich in history and heritage. The entire hotel and its 101 rooms and suites are furnished with precious antiques, chandeliers and paintings. No two rooms are the same and the suites are sumptuous.
One suite is dedicated to General Napoleon Bonaparte, who lodged at the Les Trois Rois in 1797 and was honoured with a glittering state reception.
My suite was inhabited 120 years ago by Dr Theodor Herzl, who laid foundations for the modern state of Israel while in Basel. A plaque on the wall dated 1897 shows him leaning on the balcony railing, gazing at the Rhine.
Legend and myth trace the origins of the hotel back to a meeting of three kings in 1026, while historical records first refer to ‘‘The Drei Konige’’ (The Three Kings) gentlemen’s inn in 1681, making it among the oldest, if not the oldest, city hotel in Europe.
Rebuilt in 1844 as a grand hotel, and painstakingly renovated in 2006, the name is a reference to the ‘‘Three Wise Men’’ or magi from the Orient – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – also known as The Three Kings.
Gilded statues of the kings preside over the main entrance to the hotel as they have done for centuries. I met them again on a landing as I climbed the distinctly slanting stairs to my room, an endearing feature of this venerable old hotel. I often stood and communed with the wise old men, asking them what they had seen over the ages. They told me many secrets, in complete confidence, of course.
The hotel has a quiet sophistication and self-assuredness born of hundreds of years of delivering service to royalty, political heads of state and famous artists, musicians, writers and academics.
The staff don’t feel the need to brag about all the celebrities who stay there because they just do and looking at the guests, their attire and demeanour match the spirit of the place – elegant but not showy. There’s a dress code and guests adhere to it.
As for gastronomical delights, the hotel has many options. Peter Knogl at the Cheval Blanc restaurant is the first Chef de Cuisine at a Swiss hotel to be awarded three Michelin stars. The Cheval Blanc is ranked among the world’s best and creates the most delectable culinary chef-d’oeuvres, too pretty to eat.
Chez Donati serves the finest Italian cuisine. It’s a five-minute walk from the hotel so guests can work up an appetite for the decadent treats on the dessert trolley. The Murano chandeliers there are stunning. So too is the pavlova-style dessert with toffee drizzled on the top.
Every Sunday, local gourmets gather in the historic ballroom for an elegant brunch beneath a dazzling canopy of chandeliers.
Had I been a connoisseur of cigars or whisky, the cosy Salon du Cigare and bar overlooking the river would have been my late-night haven.
Breakfast, a la Les Trois Rois, was a major event of the day. For a muesli, fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese and bread lover like me, the Brasserie was nirvana, especially with the sun rising over the Rhine transforming the swirly
waters from indigo to silver.
We also dined away from the hotel at the outstanding Bistro Kunstmuseum, Schlusel-Zunft and Volkshaus restaurants. The first of our group to visit the toilets at the Volkshaus started a stampede of camera-toting journalists. It’s most unorthodox to advise people to take cameras to public loos but it’s a must – the murals there are astonishing.
Hoping to maintain my alpine fitness, I had a few sessions at the wellequipped Rhine-side gym but was so relaxed, I often found my thoughts drifting off down the river and my legs in mid-peddle.
On the eve of my departure, I sat outside on the balcony of my suite overlooking the Rhine where trading ships once docked at the Schifflande, (boat landing), to load with salt from the nearby Salt House and Salt Tower. Surrounded by historical photographs and books of the era, I could easily visualise the ships setting off down the Rhine to take their precious cargo to the world.
The evening sun cast a warm glow on the cream facade of the hotel and scattered the river with diamantes. In the distance, rather than a horizon bristling with jagged peaks, I could see the lush green hills of Germany. Such a tranquil sight...
Three floors above me with the same view, apparently the Federer family were having drinks too, so my friends on the landing, The Three Kings, told me...
The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and stayed at The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, Basel.