Three countries of one city
The streetcar was rapidly approaching the border, and the sense of unreality of what was happening was steadily growing. The idea that it was possible to travel abroad by a typical urban transport, stubbornly refused to settle in the head. By plane, train, car, please, but not by streetcar!
The hectic downtown of Basel at the morning rush hour was left behind. Its quiet, well-kept suburbs whizzed by. We passed by the districts of warehouses and workshops, and then neat fields and vineyards surrounding small towns. At the stop before the border, the last remaining traveling companions disembarked, and I found myself alone in the streetcar.
My mind reverberated with excerpts from Soviet songs and films about the harsh everyday lives of border guards: “There’s a gloomy cloud on the border…”, “I crossed the border on a boar’s hoof…”. Not to say that they were out of place: now and then a nasty little rain fell from low torn clouds, and five minutes before that a surprising scene was observed outside the window – two little deer were grazing in the middle of a village next to a bus stop…
But the border, as one would expect, I never noticed. The streetcar simply whizzed by for a few more kilometers, only to leave me on a deserted platform with the sign “Leymen” on it, and drive on.
I century AD On the site of a Celtic settlement, the Romans founded the colony of Raurica – the future Basel. VII century Basel became the seat of the bishop. Over time, the land of the future canton came under his rule. 1501 Basel became the 11th canton of Switzerland. The only one to receive an invitation to join the confederation. 1529 At the height of the Reformation the bishop left the city. Basel became Protestant and power passed to the cantonal council. 1833 The canton of Basel split into two parts, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, as a result of internal conflict. The majority of the inhabitants of the countryside demanded a larger representation on the cantonal council, which was dominated by the inhabitants of the city. Things came to a head with armed clashes, which lasted a couple of years.
All around was France, Alsace. At first glance, it looked no different from Switzerland: similar architecture, the same forested stony hills, the same well-tended fields… The name of the village, Laimen, clearly does not sound French. The streetcar timetable that hangs at the bus stop is in German, just as it is in Basel itself. And even the first man I met, a stately old man walking an impressive-sized dog, was muttering something to him in the local German dialect. When the old man approached me, he said hello, as a villager should. But this time in French.
Life is different on the different sides of the border, though. In Limen, the euro is in circulation (although Swiss francs are readily accepted in any of the few local establishments), the speed limit is higher, and the locals, when greeting strangers, switch from their native language to French in a warning manner. The houses here are larger than in Switzerland, and the plots around them are not two hectares, as in the Basel suburbs: you can not only arrange a bed with lettuce, but also a full-fledged flower bed.
One quickly grows bored of admiring other people’s prosperity, and there is nothing to see in Laimen except the comfortable private houses – even the stork’s nest on the roof of the new-made cathedral is already empty.
Streetcar No. 10 has been running between Dornach and Rodersdorf since 1986, passing through Basel and France. The route of streetcar No. 8 partly overlaps with the streetcar routes in Saint-Louis (1900-1957) and Juneng (1910-1961), and streetcar No. 6 with the Lörrach route (1926-1967). In 2014, the streetcar will connect Basel with Germany’s Weil am Rhein, and in 2016 with Saint-Louis.
Located in France, the EuroAirport (Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg) is managed jointly by the two countries (the only case in the world). The airport has two sectors: Swiss and French. Through the Swiss sector passengers take a bus to the station Basel SBB. To the border bus goes by a separate route. This arrangement is spelled out in an agreement of 1949 and is still in force, despite Switzerland’s accession to the Schengen zone.
The only clue as to why the Swiss paved the streetcar lines here is when the only surviving tower of the medieval Landskron castle closest to the town is on the mountain, from which the whole neighborhood can be seen. The terminus of streetcar No. 10 is not Lyman, but the Swiss town of Rodersdorf. But it’s not easy to bypass France by building a streetcar line there – the path is blocked by a forested mountain. Of course, a tunnel could have been driven, but it was cheaper to negotiate with the French.
For a dozen years, route #10 was the only international tramway in the world – until a “competitor” appeared 15 years ago, connecting the German Saarbrücken with the French Sargemin. The only one, but far from the first.
– Basel had been connected to Germany since 1900 by three streetcar lines that led to St. Ludwig, Hüningen and Lörrach,” says Fabian Richard, president of the Basel Tramway Club. – And all three were closed by the end of the 1960s.
During the existence of these routes, St. Ludwig and Hüningen had time to change “citizenship” three times: Alsace passed to France after World War I, during the next one Germany took it back, only to lose it again in 1944. As if to secure Paris’s right to these lands, the French have changed the names of many towns in their own way, and the destinations of the Basel streetcar are now called Saint-Louis and Juneng. It’s not the toponymy, though, but the very possibility of going abroad by public transport, which existed at the time when Switzerland was not the only one outside the Schengen zone – the very idea of a united Europe was beyond fantasy…
The city on rails
A dense network of streetcar routes covers virtually all of Basel and extends far beyond it. The trains are long, multi-car network, but most of them resemble light metro trains. During the day, especially during rush hour, they run at intervals of a few minutes, on a strict schedule. Buses connect Basel with the suburbs for the most part. There are relatively few cars: locals prefer to move through the narrow streets of the old city by bicycle or streetcar.
The first streetcar was launched in Basel back in 1895. And unlike many other cities in the world, Basel has never tried to give up electric transport. The people of Basel are extremely proud of their streetcar. But there is no museum devoted to it in the city, although there are plenty of other museums (for example, the largest doll museum in Europe, the original Music Museum, set up in a former prison, or the Anatomical Museum at the University). An initiative group has been trying to get it built for decades. It looks like it will be a success, as city officials are discussing the possibility of dedicating some space to the new museum.
– At first, no paperwork was required to cross the borders. Passengers only had to strictly follow the customs rules – Fabian Richard reminds us that the visa regime is a relatively recent invention, post-war. – After World War II, one had to carry a passport, but visas were not required.
– And why were the international streetcar routes closed?
– Actually, the city of Juneng wanted to keep the streetcar running, but they didn’t have enough money to maintain the tracks. And St. Louis and Lörrache simply chose to abandon the streetcar and develop bus service.
The 1960s were not a good time for streetcars around the world. It was perceived as obsolete, and many cities gave it up. Today, the streetcar, which is considered the most environmentally friendly mode of transport, is experiencing a renaissance around the world.
– A branch to Germany’s Weil am Rhein is being built, and streetcars will run on it in 2014,” says Fabian Richard. – Next will be the route to Saint-Louis.
In fact, Basel residents don’t really understand the increased interest of foreigners in the international streetcar route. What appears to tourists as an amusing mishap, they perceive as the norm.
Historically, the Basel transport system in general has a rather strange relationship to the borders. When a vehicle (even a streetcar) travels abroad, that is understandable. But in Basel, as it turns out, the border itself is sometimes “moved” for the sake of transport links.
At the first moment Badischer Station seemed to me an endless series of narrow halls filled with the offices of Deutsche Post, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Bahn… Judging by the signs, both places I needed were located in the farthest part of the building. The border checkpoint was the first one on the way. I’ve never been so happy about the fact that the Schengen agreements existed – no one wanted to check my documents on the way to the toilet, which turned out to be already in Germany…
The German railway line reached Basel a century and a half ago. But to be perfectly precise, it wasn’t in 1863 that Badischer Station became German, but almost a decade later, when the Grand Duchy of Baden became part of the Reich. The station has remained under the management of German companies ever since. Under interstate agreements, a piece of the station area (for the most part, the platforms) along with the tracks have fallen under German jurisdiction.
After Switzerland joined the Schengen zone in 2008, the existence of the border control point seems to have lost its meaning. But no one cancelled the former agreements, part of the station remains German territory. And so life goes on in the unassuming box blocking half of the corridor leading to the platforms. In one room, a customs officer helps an elderly couple pack a suitcase. It is not an inspection: the suitcase has opened on the move, and it is impossible for the elderly people to shove things back. A girl in a police uniform is bored in the next room. From time to time she goes out into the corridor – it’s the only way to the trains – and follows the people passing by with her eyes.
Bayeler Foundation Museum
Switzerland’s most visited art museum is small: just over 200 pieces. Works by Picasso, Cézanne, Rousseau, Mondrian, Klee, Matisse and Giacometti (sculptures pictured) were collected by Swiss collector and art dealer Ernst Bayeler (1921-2010). The collection is now the property of the city. A good portion of the museum is devoted to temporary exhibitions, organized in cooperation with leading museums and collectors from around the world. The museum building was created by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, the author of the Pompidou Center in Paris. The Basel museum does not look as avant-garde, and architectural critics even see it as a reference to the ancient Greek temples. However, the average visitor is more likely to be impressed by the technical solutions. For example, the ceiling of the museum is transparent, and the computer-controlled shutters provide diffused light in the rooms, which eliminates the glare on the paintings. Every tour guide will not fail to notice that the museum’s main masterpiece is in the winter garden, which runs in a narrow gallery along the facade of the building. It is a view of a well-kept park and green-covered low mountains on the German side of the Rhine – Ernst Beyeler believed that nature was above art.
A similar border crossing to France at the city’s largest train station, Basel SBB, is completely lifeless most of the day. The lion’s share of trains from abroad now arrive on regular platforms, not “French” ones. And so the former customs and passport control offices are empty of passengers and staff for long periods of time. Automatic doors and fresh brochures stacked on a special rack with descriptions of Swiss customs regulations make you feel that you have been brought into some post-apocalyptic reality, where not a single living soul has survived. But you turn “out of France” into the central part of the station – and once again you find yourself in a lively crowd…
In the evening I stood on the bank of the Rhine, referring to the map, and looked out at the point in the middle of the river where the borders of the three countries meet. The observation point, situated at the exit of the only port in Switzerland, was marked by a monument, a cross between a screw from a meat grinder and a ballistic missile. A Basel pleasure boat was slowly sailing past, music was pouring from the restaurant cabin of a German ship moored nearby, and a huge flock of swans was settled on the French shore…
Of course, I planned my route myself, but at some point I began to feel that there were too many borders in Basel, they could be found almost at every step. And at the same time, they don’t really exist.
It is not surprising that these days they turn out to be nothing but conventions. But the people of Basel have not now ceased to notice the state borders – they have lived here since before joining Schengen, and long before the very idea of a united Europe in its current form.
At one time, Basel was invited to Switzerland precisely because it had longstanding cultural and economic relations with neighboring France and Germany. Basel’s port also played a significant role, since it was no longer possible for large freighters to go upstream on the Rhine. Until the advent of railroads and aviation, Basel was hardly the only Swiss gateway to the world. It played the same role for the country that St. Petersburg did for Russia (a parallel all the more interesting because Basel is considered the cultural capital of the country: the oldest Swiss university and the largest library are here, and the city holds a world record for the number of museums relative to the number of inhabitants). And in the bizarre relationship of the local transport system with the borders, the very essence of Basel manifests itself: this city, being a part of Switzerland, actually belongs to the whole world.
Switzerland is a direct democracy: all laws passed by Parliament may be repealed by popular referendum. Sometimes the authorities even invite citizens to express their opinion before the parliament has voted on a bill, if the subject is particularly controversial. Referendums are held regularly. For example, in 2012 the majority of Swiss people rejected the proposal of trade unions to extend their annual leave by one and a half times. For the past few years, people in German-speaking Basel have been voting the same way as French-speakers in Switzerland on questions of ideology such as minority rights or the smoking ban, and not at all like the rest of the “Germans”.
Basel, Switzerland’s second largest city, is unfortunately one of the underrated tourist destinations at the moment. Foreigners only know that the oldest university in the country and many other educational institutions are located here. However, not everyone knows that in Basel there are many art galleries and museums, there is a whole massive medieval historical center, and once a year takes place a colorful carnival, similar to the Venice.
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Climate and weather
The weather in Basel is determined by a mild climate, formed by Mediterranean air currents that arrive here through the Belfort Passage. As a result, Basel receives more sunshine than the rest of Switzerland, and there is almost never fog in autumn.
Average daytime temperature in summer is +20.5 ° C, and +2.8 ° C in winter. To visit Basel suitable absolutely any time of year.
Basel is located in a unique location at the junction of three countries – Germany, Switzerland, and France. Not far from the city lies the Swiss Jura Mountains. The territory of Basel is crossed by the full-flowing river Rhine, which divides it into two separate parts that are connected to each other by six bridges.
The symbol of Basel is considered the most beautiful Cathedral (XII century), which is located in the historic part of the city. Also in the center of old Basel, on Market Square, is the City Hall, and a little further away is the former Barfüssenkirche, where the Historical Museum now operates. Another landmark is the Fischmark square with its beautiful fountain with a statue of Our Lady. In addition, the main attractions of the old part of Basel are the red gate Spalentor and the Market Tower (150 meters).
Special attention should be paid to the Theater Square of Basel. There is an interesting sculpture devoted to Richard Cherry, a miniature Church of St. Elizabeth and a beautiful fountain. The architectural gems of the city are the impressive Bank House and the building of the Railroad Management Center. The concrete St. Anthony’s Church and the Romanesque-Gothic Department Building are also worth a visit.
In addition to architecture, Basel is famous for a huge number of museums and galleries with a variety of exhibits. One of the most interesting museums is undoubtedly the Museum of Paper, located in the building of an old mill. It is also worth noting the Museum of Jean Tinguely with priceless sculptures and paintings, old catalogs, posters and documents.
In 12 kilometers from Basel there are unique archeological excavations, where you can see a lot of ancient artifacts, among which the best preserved is an antique amphitheatre.
A peculiarity of the local cuisine is an abundance of potatoes and cheese, as well as meat with spices. Moreover, the restaurants of Basel can pleasantly surprise even the most demanding gourmets with their variety of dishes.
First of all, visitors must try the fondue – cheese melted in white wine. The second most popular dish in Basel is rösti from fried grated potatoes served with vegetables or mushrooms. Also on the menu of local restaurants you can always find boiled young potatoes with sauerkraut, homemade sausages, river fish, cheese raclette, and all kinds of pies.
For dessert Basel guests are offered to taste Basel cakes with almonds, honey and cherries in addition to all sorts of pies, cakes and meringues. As for drinks, the most popular are Rivella sparkling water, apple juice and Ovomaltine chocolate drink. As for alcohol, the Swiss wine (RieslingXSylvaner, Chasselas and Pinot Noir) undoubtedly takes the top honours.
Accommodation options in Basel are plentiful, so there are never any problems with accommodation. Most hotels in the city have high status and meet the highest standards, so room rates are up to the mark. For example, the Hilton Basel (5*) has a minimum room rate of $230 per night, the Dorint An der Messe Basel (3*) has $120, and the Hotel Rochat (2*) has $78.
Entertainment and recreation
In Basel, every traveler can easily find a suitable activity. In the city there is a huge number of sports centers, zoos, parks, entertainment centers and nightclubs that make every day exciting and unique. A must-see for families is the huge Zoo Basel. You can also have a great time at the Basel Zoological Garden, where in addition to exotic plants a variety of animals are represented. And for fans of biking and hiking in Basel has a lot of beautiful parks and gardens. The most popular among tourists are parks Kannenfeldpark, Solitude and Botanischer Garten Bruglingen, where excellent conditions for picnics and sports activities.
Among sports complexes one should mention Basel Private Running Tours, and fans of rest and spa procedures will love the CityBeach Messe-Parking center with cosmetology and massage salons and swimming pools.
But most of all Basel attracts tourists with its carnivals and festivals. Of these, the most famous is the Lenten Night Carnival, when the streets of the city are transformed into colorful markets, and the residents dressed up in costumes and paper hats. No less interesting event is the Baselworld exhibition, where the best firms in the country present their watches. Also worth highlighting are the International Coin and Bill Festival, the Gastronomy Fair, and the International Art Exhibition.
The places where all sorts of retail outlets in Basel are concentrated are Freiestrasse, Gerbergasse, Heuwaage and Bankverein as well as Clarastrasse and Marktplatz. Most of the stores there are fashionable boutiques, department stores, watch and jewelry shops. There are also small chocolate stores and boutiques selling handmade jewellery, antiques, books, and art. The Saturday flea market is also worth a visit for fun, with all sorts of curiosities.
The most interesting shopping place in Basel is the old market, which retains its original authentic form. It sells mainly products: cheese, fruit, vegetables, meat and wine. It should be said that their prices are quite high, but it is justified by a guarantee of environmental cleanliness.
The best souvenirs from Basel are watches, knives, a variety of chocolate and, of course, the traditional Basel biscuit. Souvenir magnets, cups, knives, T-shirts and the like are sold throughout the city, with the largest selection at the shops around the train station and at the Coop Pronto supermarket. Biscuits and chocolates are also sold on almost every corner. But the real Swiss watches, so as not to fall victim to a fake, we advise to buy in specialized stores and boutiques. However we must remember that most stores on weekdays are open only until 18:30, except for Thursday – until 21:00. On Saturdays the working day lasts till 17:00 and on Sundays almost everything is closed, except for supermarkets and stores at the station.
Basel buses and streetcars that can take you anywhere in the city. And tourists do not need to worry about paying for travel – all guests in the city hotels and hotels are given a special card allowing free travel on public transport.
Those who find themselves in Basel, however, will have to buy tickets: $ 1.8 for four stops, $ 2.6 for the central area and $ 8 for the day pass. It is possible to rent a bicycle. In some parts of the city you can take a ferry on the river ($1.5).
You can pay for a call at a pay phone on the street with coins (euros and local currency) as well as with cards, which are sold at all kiosks.
You can also call from a GSM cell phone, if you first connect the roaming service. Although for local calls is better to buy a local sim card with a special rate for tourists (Sunrise or Orange).
Internet access is available at Internet cafes, special kiosks Swisscom, hotels and other public places. Free Wi-Fi is quite rare.
The overall crime rate in Basel, as well as throughout the country, is quite low.
But here as well as in other tourist cities you shouldn’t disregard the usual security measures: street thieves and pickpockets can be encountered here. Especially during the Carnival and on Christmas Eve.
Basel is a major commercial and financial center, where the headquarters of the International Organization of the Bank for International Settlements is based. The city is also considered the capital of the pharmaceutical and chemical industries of the country. The private business has wide opportunities here, including foreigners, thanks to the loyal policy of the mayor’s office and the economic stability of the country. However, it is worth saying that the business competition in Basel is quite high.
Real estate in Basel, as well as real estate in Switzerland, meets all the requirements and standards, and has a high level.
The greatest demand in Basel apartments, but foreigners can buy housing only after obtaining a residence permit. The price for a square meter of residential real estate in the city is at least $ 4000. And demand far exceeds supply.
If we talk about commercial real estate, the foreigners can buy it without a residence permit.
Tips for the tourist
It is worth noting that the tourist bureau of Basel Tourismus offers all guests of the city BaselCard, which provide a number of discounts and benefits. Among them – free visits to 25 city museums and the zoo, free excursions around the city, free visits to clubs and discos, discounts in various stores and many other benefits. The cost of such a card for an adult is $20 (24 hours) or $35 (72 hours), and for a child – half price.
Also remember that the main advantage of Swiss cities is cleanliness, which are vigilantly watched not only by janitors, but also by the police – for the garbage thrown out in the street, will have to pay a hefty fine.