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Sunday, April 25, 1999
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Basle is a truly unique place. It is not the Switzerland most people imagine — no rugged mountains in the background and no reflection in a dark blue lake. Basle is located on the Rhine, Switzerland’s only link to the sea, where the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France come together,
Christoph Kohler

BASLE is known as the cultural centre of Switzerland, a country that for a lot of people is a synonym for beauty, mountains, chocolate, banks, watches and cleanliness.

Sunset at RiehenOnly few people in India may have heard of Basle, the charming third biggest town of Switzerland in the north-west, with a population of only about two lakh.

Zurich, with half a million inhabitants, the biggest town of Switzerland, is probably the best-known place abroad. The city gives the most cosmopolitan feeling, representing the commercial centre with all its banks and the busy international airport.

Geneva, runner-up, size wise, is famous for the UN-Headquarters. In this city the International Red Cross was founded by Henry Dunats in 1863. Lucerne and Interlaken, on the other hand, are two smaller tourist towns known to most Indians by movies like Hero No 1 or saree advertisements on TV.

Basle is a truly unique place. It is not the Switzerland most people imagine — no rugged mountains in the background and no reflection in a dark blue lake, Basle is located on the river Rhine, Switzerland’s only link to the sea, where the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France come together this is known as the "Three Country Corner".

Here one can actually be in three countries at the same time. Every day Basle receives about 30,000 commuters from across the border to work. The people of Basle, on the other hand, flock regularly across the border for shopping, where the daily commodities are much cheaper than back home. You would not even notice that you have just crossed into a foreign suburb of your own town, were it not for the border post.

If you enter Basle from Germany by the main highway, your impression of the town would be one of a common industrial town, one that just merits a passing look from the windows of your car as you drive through it.

A typical fountation with the Basle symbolThe chimneys of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries like Novartis, (formerly known as Ciba-Geigy and Roche) and Sandoz dominate both sides of the highway for kilometres, eclipsing the secrets and beauty of the real Basle.

Basle has a very lively past, dating back for more than 2000 years, when Celtics settled there. In 1226, before the independent state of Switzerland was born, the first bridge across the Rhine was built. It was financed by a local bishop, who mortgaged the church’s treasure.

Later, miseries hit Basle with plague and earthquake in 1356, when basically the entire town was destroyed in a blaze of fire.

In the 14th century the fortune of the town took a turn for the better, and Basle changed into a medieval metropolis, famous as a centre of Christian humanism and for the art of printing. Intellectuals from all over Europe gathered in Basle around the dominating figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Consequently, in 1460 the first Swiss university was built in Basle. The town joined the Swiss Confederation (Switzerland), created in 1291, 41 year later.

The town became a major fair centre of Europe after 1471 when Basle received the concessions to officially hold industrial fairs. Today, the World Watch Fair draws the attention of the entire globe towards the city of Basle.

Chalets overlooking the suburbs of RiehenIn the 16th century during the time of Christian reformation, Basle had a very liberal immigration policy, granting Protestant refugees from all over Europe a new home. Thanks to them, new industries like silk-spinning, dying or paper production were introduced. They brought wealth to the town and were the foundation for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which developed during the Industrial Revolution.

Today, walking through the ancient part of Basle, you are in touch with its antiquity at every corner. The past seems to live on in the baroque and medieval buildings. You can see its grace in buildings like the cathedral overlooking the Rhine or the red sandstone parliamentary building facing the busy market place.

Fountains of all sizes and designs everywhere, where you can take a refreshing gulp, are a further known attraction. In the heart of the town a fabulous fountain of Tinguely is spilling water in all directions and invites for a closer look.

The "Spalen-Gate", is a marvellous piece of architecture, is part of the old town wall. It marks the boundary between the old and new town with the university quarter, the institutes and clinics beyond. You can take a walk along the leaf canopy covered Rhine bank, or go for an agreeable stroll in the lungs of Basle — the abundant parks.

The zoo is famous, though one doesn’t have to travel far, to reach beautiful forests and farmland in Riehen or Bettingen, where one can go out for fine walks.

During the warmer period of the year, the streets come alive with numerous artistes and performers everywhere, primarily in the busy commercial areas, showing their talent to the public.

Culturally Basle has a lot to offer. You can opt for museums, two symphony orchestras ballet, theatre and musicals or just have a pint of beer in one of the various pubs and rave on through the night in a club.

For art lovers the town offers around 30 museums, several with a worldwide reputation. Organised cultural trips to Europe always include a stop in Basle. The art gallery has marvellous pieces from masters like Picasso, Dali, Braque, as well as modern artists like Kadinsky or Klee.

Some years ago the tax payers of Basle decided to vote by a large majority to buy two paintings of Picasso. This made the painter so happy that he gifted the town four paintings to the town.

There are museums dedicated to toys, bugs, puppet houses, cartoons or paper — have a look at the newly opened museum holding the live work of Jean Tinguely, who assembled scrap metal and all sorts of rubbish to the most bizarre moving creatures and machines.

Once a year the carnival (called Fasnacht) takes place, starting on Monday morning at 4 a.m. when all Basle seems to be on its feet.

At the stroke of 4 the lights are switched off, and the groups, all wearing beautifully designed masks, with colourful lanterns illuminate the streets. From there on the next 72 hours is officially carnival time, with music, and a lot of ironic satirical references to events and people from the previous year, ranging from the highest authorities to the ordinary neighbour.

People of Basle go crazy about soccer, even though the club hasn’t had one success since a decade. Anyhow, they love their FCB (Football Club Basle) and flock the stadium in thousands, to see their boys playing, knowing that one fine day the team will again hold the champions’ trophy up towards the sky. The victory will, of course, be celebrated with much joy and happiness, and the celebrations would last for a week!

Basle is a town which certainly differs in many ways from the rest of Switzerland. Its population doesn’t fit into the stereotype of typical Swiss character. They always are a step ahead, more liberal and open to new ideas.Back

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