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Beguiling Basel

Basel, Switzerland, beckons with old-world charm, modern architecture and world class art. Basel may not have the mountains and cowbells, typical of Swiss scenery, but it has an impeccable location.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2011 01:13 IST
Geetika Jain

Standing on the terrace of Basel’s Cathedral, overlooking the Rhine, I could see the picturesque town sprawled on both sides of the river, and just beyond, Germany’s Black forest and the French Vosages.

Basel may not have the mountains and cowbells, typical of Swiss scenery, but it has an impeccable location. It straddles a key waterway and is flanked by powerful nations who lend their infrastructure and share their lush scenery across the liquid borders that locals cross routinely. To the far right and left were the headquarters of Novartis and Roche, two giants in a chain of pharmaceutical companies that keep the town’s coffers brimming.

Four centuries ago, Basel was the centre of the silk trade in Europe. All manner of ribbons and fabric were made here, and the corresponding need for expertise and research in chemicals for the dying process led to modern day pharmaceutical products.

Old and new attractions
Visitors are attracted to Basel’s charming old town, terracotta rooftops, church steeples and undulating cobbled paths. On weekdays, the lively central square, Marketplatz, fills with vendors announcing their fresh produce in Swiss, German and French.

The adjacent Rathaus or Town Hall is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, painted in a loud red and overlaid with beautiful frescoes. Steps away, the streets Spalenberg and Nadelberg have chic design stores and high end boutiques.

Basel is also famed for its contemporary architecture, and if you appreciate the works of contemporary architects Herzog & de Meuron, you’ll want to explore the outer ring.

Time spent in Basel will always feel inadequate due to its splendid offerings of museums and galleries. There are over 30 museums in this bite sized town (with barely 1,70,000 people) and many of them showcase world class art. My favourites were the Foundation Bayeler at Baselstrasse 101, Riehen and the Kunstmuseum at 16 Alben-Graben.

Art Basel
Two annual events, Baselworld, a watch and jewellery fair in March and Art Basel in June are a Mecca for buyers and dealers. At this year’s Art Basel there was a throng of collectors, curators, gallerists and art consultants, squeezing past each other to get in on the day before the general opening.

Looking at them, someone remarked, “These people are not accustomed to standing in queues, let alone getting crushed.” Yet, being the first may be the only way to snaffle-up that coveted painting, sculpture, projection or installation.

On display were works by Jaume Plensa, Tony Craig, Antony Gormley, Mark Oehlen, Thomas Ruff and Candida Hofer, amidst thousands of upcoming and established artists represented by over three hundred galleries around the world. Hurried footsteps covered the acreage of the two floors of Art Basel, the adjoining Art Unlimited with its massive installations.

As pieces were booked via word of mouth and hurried transactions took place, there was talk of the current Venice Biennale and Art Basel Miami in December… As for me, by the time I had re-examined my feelings for a painting it had been sold.

Tourist guide

When to go:
April through September. Art Basel is in June each year at the Messe Building in Klein Basel.

Stay at:
Le Trois Rois is the Grand Dame of the hotels, situated on the Rhine. 8 Blumenrain 4161 260 5050.
For business visitors:
Radisson Blu, 25 Steinentor Strasse 25.
Affordable style:
Im Hofli in Riehen offers a cosy bed and breakfast. 27, Basel Strasse in Riehen 00 4161 269 8711

Eat at:
Le Cheval Blanc at Le Trois Rois; The terrace of Hotel Krafft overlooks the Rhine with wonderful views of Basel. Chez Donati serves Italian amidst beautiful art on St Johann’- Vorstadt. Sprungli, a Swiss confectioner sells delicious macaroons called ‘Luxemburgeli’ in multi flavours.

After hours:
Have a drink at the atmospheric Kunsthalle Bar at Steninenburg 7.