However you pronounce it, Basel in Switzerland is pretty much the perfect continental city break
If flying into Basel airport, make sure you emerge in the correct country.
This might seem like an obvious piece of advice, but the city’s airport is actually in the neighbouring French town of Mulhouse, which also serves the nearby German town of Freiburg. Due to its location at the border of all three, the airport has been creatively named ‘Euro Airport’ – so be sure to join the right queue when at passport control.
The region has become a major centre for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and the bus ride in to the city takes you past the many kilometres of factories and slightly obnoxious looking steel chimneys. Be assured though, that once in to the heart of the city, these sights are well and truly behind you.
Despite much of Basel being flattened thanks to an earthquake in 1356, large parts of the old town remain – the City Hall (Rathaus) dates back to the 1300s, the first bridge over the Rhine was constructed in 1225, and the Munster Cathedral was built in 1019. Each a stunning landmark amongst the streets of real life gingerbread houses and cobbled market places.
Basel also has a more contemporary edge to it. Its recent role as one of the host cities in the 2008 European Football Championships saw further investment in the city’s already-excellent public transport and shopping facilities.
Holiday essentials - shopping and food
Globus is a department store just off the main square, which will makes Selfridges look like a corner shop. As for somewhere to stay, I chose a night at the Hotel Bildungszentrum. To find anything much cheaper, you may have to venture out of town. The city’s streets have plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants, and you will be sure to find what you’re after; not wanting to seem like too much of a tourist, I went for fondue at the relatively central Restaurant zum Alten Stockli and dipped breads and meats for many hours, all for the equivalent of about £4. For a more special occasion track down Restaurant Hasenburg in the Old Town – great food and one of the few restaurants in the city that offers a non-smoking section kept separate by more than a pot plant.
Visit Basel at the right time of year and you will see the normally serene streets transformed by the annual Fasnacht carnival. Beginning at exactly 4am on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday, Fasnacht is both a celebration of local traditions and a display of satire directed at political figureheads old and new. Streams of floats, marching bands and performing artists continually move along the route and are met by thousands of spectators.
Every participant wears a mask, a grotesque exaggeration of human faces by way of poking fun at those initially being rebelled against. I confess however, that the background I have provided to this event is a little vague. The locals I spoke to struggled to give me any real reason for the event and even the Official Basler Fasnacht website simply advises you ‘go with the flow and don’t take it too seriously’. Which, I have to say, is a superb recommendation.
Another seasonal celebration you should coincide your visit with is Christmas. This might seem like a bit of a cheat, as you would imagine any city in the Christian world would take on a new lease of life at that time of year. However, Basel becomes especially beautiful. I struggle to believe you will find a better Christmas market anywhere, so get a warm mug of gluhwein, wrap up warm and stroll round the maze of medieval streets.
As a final point, you may need to buy a phrase book. I thought my combination of GCSE French and German would get me by. Not the case, as Basel is very much a Swiss-German speaking city and to make it even less easy for you, the city has even developed its own unique dialect known as ‘Basel German’. I however like that fact that not everybody in shops and bars goes out of their way to speak English for tourists. That makes it far less likely that Basel will become another Amsterdam or Barcelona with a stag do on every corner.
Fortunately Mulhouse is nice too, just in case you take the wrong turn at baggage reclaim.