In Basel — I

A pleasant breeze rises from the Rhine and the sun warms us on the steps as we watch the boaters and the walkers and the idlers. Some men play music on a large speaker. The tables at the restaurants by the river are occupied and spirits flow aplenty. If this is a weekday evening in Basel, what do weekends look like?

Basel is one of the most relaxed cities I’ve ever seen. Where we are staying there is no traffic, only the fear of being run over by a cyclist or a tram, because we don’t know how to walk around these means of transport. People seem to know when to finish work, because by seven o’clock, most shops are shut and offices are apparently closed. In a few hours, the city will have quietened down, but music will rise from unknown quarters.

On our first evening we don’t know the landmarks, but simply enjoy the sight of the lovely buildings by the river. The red sandstone towers of the Basel Minster glisten prominently in the evening sun, and this stretch of river with its bustling steps is like a miniature Paris. On the other side lies the Old Town, its steep, narrow roads liberally sprinkled with old buildings and fountains.

We wander down Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge), one of the older bridges on this side of the Rhine, and marvel at the orderliness of everything. (Also, I’m pinching myself because I’m actually looking at a river whose name caught my fancy at school.) In the centre of the bridge is a sort of tower, which we learnt later was used to imprison those who had fallen out of favour with the law for a short period of time, so that the townspeople could watch and ridicule them. Now it seems to have turned into a sort of lovers’ memorial, with locks attached it to its gates, as is the fashion on many bridges.

I am in Basel for work and as I prepared for the trip, I planned to stay an extra day so that I could be touristy. I looked at the map of Switzerland several times. Would I have a chance to see some Alps? Set foot in some of the well-known cities, perhaps Lucerne, Bern, or Geneva? Look at radiant rolling meadows, revel in chocolate, buy a book? Take a train journey?

I wanted to keep my expectations low and decided to set my sights on Lucerne. One, it offered a chance to see a lake and the Alps. Two, Mark Twain had written about it in A Tramp Abroad. Looking for books set in Switzerland was quite a task, and as I didn’t want to read The Magic Mountain at this time, Twain was the most obvious choice. I hoped to read snatches of it on the trip or afterwards to keep the memory of my visit alive.

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Basel is an ancient settlement. The Gauls and the Celts made it their home over two thousand years ago, and the Romans and the Alemanni (Germanic) tribes followed. The Swiss German spoken in some parts of the country today (and some other areas outside Switzerland) is linked with Alemannic dialects.

Basel has an interesting location in the northwest of Switzerland, almost at the point where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet. Go up on a high hill and you may be able to see all three countries on a clear day. Which is what I think we managed to do when we went up the towers of the Basel Minster, a Reformed Protestant church which was once a Catholic cathedral. Rebuilt in its present form after the 1356 earthquake, the church has seen some turbulent times with the Reformation; the Basel Historical Museum houses some Catholic relics torn down during this period.

The name of Zwingli is prominent in articles on the Reformation in Switzerland. He spent a considerable amount of time in Basel, studying and also interacting with the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. The buildings of the University of Basel pop up nonchalantly in the Old Town, a disarming façade for the amount of scholarship that emerged from here. Basel has been home to Bernoulli, Euler, Nietzsche, and a number of other splendid minds — including Roger Federer, of course.

The climb up Basel Minster is a steep adventure. There is very little light and as we approach the different levels, there is always a bit more we can go — till we finally reach the top, and on this clear day, all of Basel is ours, bright and beautiful.

We start climbing just as the service begins with a lady playing the flute; when we get to the first level with its massive bell, it is noon and the church bells begin tolling, echoing. With the rooftops, the city gates, and the river that fed Basel’s fortunes spread out in front of us, we are in the right place to experience the passage of centuries.

The dark, steep climb down is less of an adventure than the climb up, but I can’t stop thinking about what it must have been like a few centuries ago, who went up these steps, what did they see? We emerge into the sunny lanes of the old city and wander back to our office.

On the way, we pass what was once the house of printer Hieronymus Froben, who had hosted Erasmus during his later years. These streets are steeped with history, while on the other side of the Rhine, a modern city hums with life.

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