Two Days in Basel

Gail and I have just completed another portion of the Via Francigena pilgrimage which started in Canterbury and will eventually take us to Rome. This year, we walked 575 kilometres from Tergnier to Gy in France. Although we planned to walk about 40 kilometres further to Besançon, an unfortunate fall that severely limited Gai’s ability to walk, cut our journey a tiny bit short.

However, we had also planned a post-walk holiday that would take us from Besançon and through Switzerland by train, before returning home to Winnipeg. We resolved to continue with our plans, as carefully and as slowly as Gail’s ability required, minimizing our walking and using buses, trams and trains wherever possible. Here’s a day-by-day account of our progress.   

Notes from our stay in Basel:

It takes but a few hours and three trains to transport us from ancient Besançon to modern Basel. We step out of the train station—Europe’s busiest international border station—and into a bustling square packed with buses, trams and suitcase-totting pedestrians. 

While Basel does have an old town, it is a city largely informed by the modern world. In some respects, the city is not unlike many North American cities. In places, the roadways are formidable barriers. Big pharmaceutical corporations, Roche and Novartis, are headquartered here in sleek campuses. The architecture is resolutely modern. In fact, we are here because of Basel’s contemporary architecture as well as the nearby Vitra campus (more about that in my next post). 

There are good guides to Basel’s contemporary architecture available online and we had ambitious plans to walk the city in search of as many as possible. Of course, Gail’s limited mobility impacted those plans. Fortunately, hotels in all of the Swiss cities we visited offer free transit cards for buses and trolleys. Even so, we could visit but a small number of the possible sites the city has to offer.

Our architectural tour starts with our hotel, The Passage. The name refers to its position between the old town, accessed by an attractive pedestrian passage behind the hotel, and the broad thoroughfare it faces, lined with slick modern commercial buildings. Designed by local architectural firm WyssSantos, the exterior is distinguished by a grid of minimalist coffered  modular panels with contrasting decorative screen insets. And, being a chic hotel, only a glass wall separates the shower from the bedroom. Thankfully, there are curtains!

Mario Botta, a well known international architect, is well-represented in the city. His Bank for International Settlements (BIS) sits by a busy intersection. It’s a tall drum-shaped structure clad in contrasting shades of grey stone. Punched-out rectangular and round porthole windows, together with an area carved out of the street level façade, play against the building’s cylindrical form. It’s formal and a little severe, an example of the New Rationalist style.

Botta is also represented in the Museum Tinguely. Again, the rationalist exterior is clad in contrasting stone courses, this time pink. Hard edges face unattractive motorways on two sides but it opens up with large windows facing a park and a sweeping gallery of glass suspended over the Rhine River. However, the real highlight is the (literally) lively mechanical sculptures of world-renowned Basel artist, Jean Tinguely. I’ll leave it to you to play the video/soundscape below, a compilation of his fascinating whirligig concoctions.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are based in Basel but they have an international portfolio. Winnipeggers visiting Minneapolis, Minnesota will recognize Herzog and de Meuron’s hand in the renovated Walker Gallery. The firm has multiple projects in Basel. I will highlight their Roche Towers. Buildings 1 and 2 are tall glass towers (Building 2 is the tallest in Switzerland at 178 metres) straddling yet another big motorway, the Grenzacherstrasse. 

This is but a small sampling of Basel’s contemporary architecture. Works by Renzo Piano, Richard Meier, BIG and many others can be explored. And a visit to the Novartis Campus would be worthwhile. Another trip, I suppose.

I will leave off in the older town. More of a small district within the larger, thoroughly modern city, it offers quiet pedestrian-oriented shopping streets, a bohemian vibe with small craft-oriented stores and many sidewalk cafes and restaurants. It’s a comfortable space where locals come to hang out. Not to be outdone by its contemporary neighbours, there are many historic buildings to be found here, the highlight being the city hall, or Rathaus. Its deep red façade, with elaborate 17 C. frescoes by artist Hans Bock, stands out on the rather innocuous Marktplatz. Passing through the Gothic-arched portal, the inner courtyard continues to amaze. Every surface is touched with frescoes and architectural detail.

Read on to view the day’s photos and video/soundscape.

Click to view a short video compilation of Jean Tinguely’s fascinating sculptures in motion.

Click the images below to view a full-screen slideshow.

4 thoughts on “Two Days in Basel

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  1. Great buildings! I’m just on the chapter called ‘Basel’ in a book on Hans Holbein the Younger, who amongst other things, painted house fronts when living there. And of course, the city was then a centre of the Reformation.

  2. Fabulous taste of a fabulous city. Completely surprised at the dimensions, contents and actions of the large Tinguely works! However, you are banned from Italy for life for having a beer and what appears to be a capuccino on the same caffe table at the same time. That is not allowed. Your passport visa is withdrawn. Do not come here. Stay out, you risk your life if you arrive.

    1. Neal, that’s hilarious. In my own defence, we were having an afternoon break (at the Tinguely Museum cafe overlooking the Rhine). Gail ordered the cappuccino and I understand that it is a strictly morning drink in Italy (or, at least, in Sicily) and taboo in the afternoon. It looks have to leave her at the Italian border next year! 😉

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