So Much More than Just the Tattoo
Basel offers a wonderfully relaxed, culture filled and engaging couple of days away, you will return yearning for trams……
Article by Rupert Watkins
Tucked away right on the border with France and Germany lies a gem of a city, Basel. Small, relaxed and pretty is it the perfect antidote to the stresses of big city London. A picturesque and efficient train journey from Zurich airport brings you into Basel’s main station. Very much in the grand station tradition and redolent of the age of steam, before air travel this was the main tourist entry point into the country.
Upon leaving the station, you instantly have to start avoiding being run over by trams. To the habitué of the tube, these are a colourful and exceedingly well organised way of getting around the city. Clean, Wi-Fi enabled and cloud connected (the travel and connection data shown on the carriage’s screens leaves you weeping for TfL), they cover most parts of Basel. The central oldest part of the city is actually rather small, intimate and very walkable. Given the country’s historic break down into very self – governing cantons, the Town Hall and Marktplatz is a good place to start. Still the seat of the canton’s parliament and government, the colourful building dates back to the 16th century and the bustling market is a wonderful place to pick up local cheeses – as well as the inevitable chocolate.
Moving uphill you then can head to the Cathedral, built between the 12 and 15th centuries. Constructed in both gothic and Romanesque styles, it is the resting place of the great 16th century humanist scholar Erasmus. The cloisters and observation platform next to it offer wonderful views of the Rhine – the central artery running through the city. The myriad of other places and points of interest include the remnants of the ancient city walls, the Tinguely Fountain – an eccentric and eclectic water display – and the small ferries that criss-cross the Rhine. These small and relaxing craft are driven across the river by the current alone. Whilst sitting back in the cushions of the craft you can observe the inhabitants of Basel swimming in the Rhine. This popular activity draws people of all ages as they take advantage of the current to either cool off (it was a warm 31 degrees during our trip) or indeed commute.
Those culture vultures amongst you will find much to engage you. The Kunstmuseum Basel – the main art gallery in the city is currently undergoing renovation until early next year. In the meantime the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst (Contempory Art Museum) has a selection of some of Kuntsmuseum’s finest pieces on display – including some stunning Renoirs and Pissarros – to go alongside their modern and cutting edge exhibitions. Other interesting museums include the remarkable Toy World Museum with its collection of over 2,500 teddy bears, 1,000 dolls from all over the world as well as its carousels and doll’s houses.
My group was wined and dined magnificently during our stay. On the first night, we were taken to Restaurant Löwenzorn. One of the oldest eateries in the city going back almost 150 years, the atmospheric and traditional courtyard was an elegant backdrop to a delicious meal of pork knuckle and sauerkraut and local cheese. Spotting a neighbouring table in traditional caps and sashes, we found out through a courteous and engaging host, the restaurant is actually owned by two of the oldest student co-operatives in the city (at 1460 Basel is Switzerland’s oldest university) who were enjoying their weekly reunion. Similar to the student corporations at the prestigious German universities, I was surprised to discover the sport of Mensur or academic fencing (duelling) still survives between these bodies as our host showed his duelling scar….
Following our guided tour on the second morning (groups at £152 for one hour, £185 for two), we were taken for lunch at Restaurant Atlantis. Tucked away on a side street, this small and relaxed restaurant has a stylish and intimate roof terrace, perfect for wiling away a lunchtime hour – or two. A number of the group opted for the cod with a baked black olive crust which was uniformly decreed excellent. At both meals, we were sampling local Swiss white wine. Perhaps slightly sweeter with more apple/ fruit hints than French and Italian whites, it is refreshing and dangerously drinkable when chilled.
Meeting our knowledgeable and enthusiastic Tourism contact Nora, we headed to the old city barracks, now a school, which is converted each year into the Tattoo venue. The area around the barracks is transformed by street traders selling Swiss delicacies such as raclette. Moving into the venue, we were kindly taken round by the Tattoo’s Event Director. Since its humble beginnings ten years ago in the city’s ice hockey stadium, the event has grown to be the second largest and most important tattoo in the world after Edinburgh. With an operating budget of £14.5 million, the event is now in the position to turn away interested bands such is its present renown. The Tattoo now has its own tartan officially registered and made up by Kinlock & Anderson in Edinburgh. Before taking our seats, we were taken into the Tattoo Pub which has unlimited food and refreshment.
This year saw bands from all over the world, the New Zealand Army Band, the Blue Devils Corps International from the USA, the Republic of Korea Air Force Band and the Pipes and Drums from the Royal Air Force of Oman just gives a small indication of the breadth of the military and marching bands. From the UK, the Band of the Household Cavalry was performing for the first time there as well as the Pipes and Drums from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Borderers (The Royal Regiment of Scotland) and 102 Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) amongst others.
With two performances a day, we took our seats for the later evening performance – more atmospheric with the light and firework displays providing a colourful backdrop. Following the march on of the bands and the Pipes and Drums, each band then went through their routine. Stand out performers for me included the New Zealanders with their distinctive hakka, the sheer pizazz of the Blue Devil Corps and the Imps – the British youth motorcycle display team with their red tunics and precision riding. The Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps also electrified the audience with a stunning and breathless performance.
At two hours and a half hours though, the organisers should perhaps in future look to slightly prune the running time. Regardless of their style and precision, after two hours the bands somewhat blur into one another which becomes most unfair on all the bands and dancers with the toil, flair and preparation clearly put into their performances. That said, the final spectacle of all 1,000 plus performers, filling the parade square is hugely impressive and sent a tingle down the spine of this old soldier. It is also a testament to the hard work behind the scenes of the hundreds of tattoo volunteers.
During our stay in Basel, we were accommodated at the Novotel Basel (rooms from £106). Slick, smart, unfailingly courteous staff and with an excellent buffet breakfast, it is a good base to explore the city though inevitably as a business – oriented chain it lacks some of the uniqueness and charm of one-off establishments. Those after such a place should certainly investigate The Grand Hotel Les Trios Rois. The city’s only five star hotel, this is an opulent and indulgent treat with richly furnished and antique filled bedrooms (from £344) and public areas. Other stylish – and somewhat less expensive – alternatives worth checking out are the Pullman Basel Europe (rooms from £86 weekends, £132 during the week) and Der Teufelhof Basel.
Basel has a small population; with only around 200,000 inhabitants wandering the gloriously non-crowded streets during the day and evening is a pleasure and gives you time to soak in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. With a range of events throughout the year, from the three day Fasnacht carnival the week following Ash Wednesday through to the two enormous Christmas Markets – considered the largest and prettiest in Switzerland, there is always something fresh to entertain the visitor. Following a fascinating and tranquil three days, after we flew back a colleague and I headed for the chaos of Heathrow’s Piccadilly Line. As we boarded the busy and crowded train, we caught each other’s eye and sighed – still thinking of trams……
Riddle’s thanks goes to Nora and Amy from Basel Tourism for hosting us so well. www.basel.com
Basel Tattoo http://www.baseltattoo.ch/ Tickets to the VIP Tattoo Pub £57 (2015 prices)
Riddle flew with SWISS who offer up to 110 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £63* one-way. www.swiss.com
Train Zurich to Basel: Fares from Zurich to Basel start at £46 standard class return. For booking visit www.voyages-sncf.com