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Switzerland’s Hidden Treasure

Romilly Golding

Basel is the new black. It’s official.
Thanks to Wallpaper magazine’s frequent forays into Switzerland’s quiet luxe lifestyle, and Moschino’s last Swiss-styled collection, Switzerland is so square it’s finally become hip. And Basel, in the northern, German-speaking part of the country now rivals other traditional European city-break destinations.

I discovered Basel last year when I was posted to Switzerland as a web copywriter. I was surprised how beautiful the city is – it straddles the Rhine and boasts a hotch-potch of Franco-German architecture – geographically, Basel’s location is pretty exceptional as the surrounding region neighbours France and Germany, which makes for an interesting mix of cross-cultural influences.

Basel is renowned for its pharmaceutical industry, and frankly, not much else. It is hard to find much information on the city, as it hasn’t yet been repackaged as a hot Euro destination. Apart from drugs, I didn’t think the city would have much to offer.
Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For urbanites needing an injection of culture, and a relaxing but groovy break from the norm, Basel is a great place to shake off the winter blues. The city is home to a vibrant cultural scene and is a Mecca for jazz-heads and art-lovers around the globe. Basel’s contemporary art fair is one of the biggest in the world, and the annual jazz festival always has a show-stopping line up of high-calibre musicians such as last year’s Abdullah Ibrahim and B.B. King.

The German influence is hugely evident in the city. From the tempting selection of organic and hand made goodies in the market square each Saturday, to the laid back, eco-conscious way of life, the city has that creative, alternative feel that Germany can be known for.

The city is divided by the Rhine into Klein Basel, (small Basel), and Grosse Basel (big Basel). The south side of the river, Klein Basel, is officially the red light district, but home to a lot of great bars and alternative cinemas.

Grosse Basel is where you’ll find the shops and cinemas. Design aficionados will note the eclectic mix of Italian, German and French architecture prevalent in this area of the city. The magnificent gothic Munster (cathedral) dominates the city and it is worth walking to the Munsterplatz (cathedral square) to enjoy the panoramic view of Germany’s Black Forest and the Rhine wending its way to neighbouring France. For shopping, wander along Frei Strasse for a great choice of stores, from designer temples such as Trois Pommes (stocks DKNY, Gucci, Helmut Lang and Prada and more) to usual Euro-suspects such as H&M, Kookai and Mango.

Take a detour behind the pedestrian zone area and stroll up to Heuberg, a delightfully fairytale maze of streets, lined with impeccably preserved 14th Century gingerbread-style houses overflowing with window boxes full of geraniums and an off-beat selection of boutiques, florists and galleries.

I arrived in the city in April, and can’t imagine a better time to take a break in this city.
The Basel Jazz festival kicks off in April. This world-renowned festival attracts groovsters from around the world. I managed to catch the last night and was treated to staggering performances from Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater, no less. (Such headline acts are typical.) Culture vultures who miss the jazz festival could visit the city in June, the month of Basel’s contemporary art fair. This is really worth checking out just for the people watching. Models, dealers, down-beats, sheiks, painters, photographers, and art-world wannabes strut their stuff between the makeshift gallery walls, so even if you have no intention of clinching the deal on a rare Rothko, go for the atmosphere. If snapping up an early Pollock or shipping home a Nan Goldin is out of the question, there’s always the alternative art fair, which runs at the same time as the main fair. Last year this showcase of younger, lesser-known artists was held in a fabulous converted brewery, Wartek on the banks of the Rhine. Wartek also has a restaurant and is houses artists’ ateliers, workshops and studios.

Later in the summer, Orange hosted a huge outdoor film festival, and not the sort of muddy affair you’d find in England. It was a covered, comfy seated, obviously Swiss–engineered wide screen showing a collection of independent and popular films. The free festival runs every year in August.

Year-round, Basel boasts an astonishing collection of hip hangouts, and enough culture to satisfy even the most ardent art-hound. Below I’ve listed a few of the best cafes, bars and restaurants.
* * *

Fumare Non Fumare is a groovy, glass-fronted café for trendy German designer types. Check in for your morning Latte fix. Situated on the main pedestrian area, Gerbergasse.
Mitte (same building as Fumare Non Fumare) holds weekly events, such as live music from classical performances mid-week to drum and bass sessions on a Friday night. Also have great brunch on a Sunday and regular dance performances, readings and philosophy discussion groups. Also offers children’s events during half term and holidays.
RotEngel is a cosy student-filled café tucked away in AndreasPlatz, a tiny fountain and geranium filled square. A great place to hang with a bowl of coffee, backgammon and a dog-eared copy of Proust’s Le Temps Perdue.

Hirschenecke This place is crazy. By day Hirschenecke is a gorgeous café perfect for spreading out the papers, hanging with a coffee and checking out the regular exhibitions on the pretty green paneled walls. By night, the café opens its cavernous cellar and plays host to Basel’s home-grown ‘death-rock’ bands. Really. This is situated at the end of Rheingasse, in Klein Basel (next to Hirscheneck is a tiny communist café with printing facilities where you can print and hand out leaflets for your latest manifesto – I’m not kidding.)

Grenzwert: Good late-night hangout – it’s small but cool with old-school table football, piano and great interior design. Open ‘til late, this is also on Rheingasse.
Kaserne: A sprawling factory / theatre/ alternative events venue for concerts, dance and plays. Has a cool bar and a nice restaurant for FlammenKüche (pizza) , often features open air films in the summer, and European football championships. Very children friendly, great place to hang out on a summer evening with a beer. Situated on Kasernestrasse, also in Klein Basel.

Cargo: Riverside bar and café with eclectic, funky décor and consistently cool vibes. From Thursday onwards Cargo has resident DJs and music nights from jazz to techno. In the early evening it’s a great place to go for a quiet drink on the waterfront. Situated on Blumenrhine.

Beyler Foundation: Incredible, minimalist art gallery 20 minutes outside Basel. (Jump on tram number 12 and descend at Rhiendorf) The building is constructed of glass and concrete, surrounded by water and set in rolling pastures and designed by contemporary architect and Genoa born Renzo Piano. Great collection of art - amazingly, many of the works are privately owned by the Beylers. The Foundation features Giacommetti, Monet, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Turner, Picasso (there’s a whole room dedicated to Picasso which also showcases his ceramics.) The Foundation regularly hosts exhibitions – from now until the end of April is a Mark Rothko retrospective.KunstHalle, Kunstmuseum, Gegenwartskunst Museum.

Basel’s three great art museums offer a very comprehensive selection of contemporary and traditional art, so you’ll find everything from Tilmans to Turner. The Kunsthall holds interesting regular exhibitions but the Kunstmuseum has a better permanent collection. The Gegenwartskunst Museum is a modern art museum with a refreshingly playful feel to both the museum and the collections – no warders and ‘Don’t Touch’ signs!

Chateau Lapin
From the outside this cafe looks like a trucker’s diner. Inside it is cosily decorated with wooden panelling and diner-style banquettes. Beware! This is very hearty Swiss German food! The Rösti here is the best in town. Recommendations include Rösti mit Zwebieln und Speck (Rosti with bacon and onion) and a bottle of red wine to stave off the winter chills. Only eat here if you’re extremely hungry as the portions and potato-based fare are pretty substantial.

I shouldn’t really list the next two restaurants as they are so cool that Baslers probably want to keep them secret. However, they are so good that even if you visited just one during your break, it would make the trip worthwhile. Just don’t tell anyone else.
L’Imprimerie: Possibly the cheapest restaurant in the whole of Europe. Three course meals from £4.00 (10CHF). Great minimalist-rustic interior with rough plastered walls and big scrubbed oak tables. The chef regularly whips up delicious wild mushroom risotto, salads and traditional Kalbsläberli with wild rice. There is only one menu per day to choose from. Call 061 262 3606 for further information.

Gundledingerhof: Reasonably priced dishes for a real gastronomic experience this restaurant is unassuming from the outside, it just looks like a traditional brasserie, but the regularly serves up top quality nosh. Call 061 361 6909 for further information


Youth Hostel SJH, St. Alban-Kirchrain 10, 4052 Basel
Open all year. Situated in a former 19th century silk ribbon factory at the Rhine river. Reputed to be one of the most beautiful Youth Hostels in Switzerland!
Tel: 061 272 05 72
Fax: 061 272 08 33

Hotel Teufelhof *** Leonhardsgraben 47-49, 4051 Basel
Basel’s ‘Culture and Guesthouse’ is an art hotel with each room decorated by a different (seemingly avant-garde artist) Also has a small theatre open from mid-September until the beginning of May.
Tel. 061/261 10 10
Fax 061/261 10 04

Useful Dates:
Basel Jazz Festival: Runs from now until May.
Basel Art Fair: Runs from 13th – 16th June, held in the Messe, ClaraPlatz.Useful phone numbers
Basel Tourist Board: 061 268 6868, open Mon 8.20 – noon, Tues – Fri 8.30 am – 6pm
Beyler Foundation: 061 645 9700, open every day from 10am – 6pm, Wed until 8pmUseful websites

© Romilly Golding 2001

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