In many respects, Basel is typically Swiss. Clean, well-tended, and unhurried , the rich array of this delightful town's medieval and Baroque structures, blossoming courtyard gardens, cobblestone back lanes, and discreet bank entrances evoke the sort of complacent reassurance many foreigners tend to expect from Switzerland.
Yet despite the cliches, Basel remains strikingly unique. Overlooking the gray forceful waters of the Rhine where Switzerland meets France and West Germany, this 2,000-year-old Celtic settlement has a distinct sense of humor, dialect, and heritage of its own. Unabashedly proud, Baselers suffer few pangs of modesty about their cultural past and social peculiarities.
Naturally in a country where every town jealously guards its own identity and considers its neighbors with equal aloofness, you will hear similar arguments concerning each locality,and this writer has no wish to become involved in the centuries-old wrangling. But as a frequent traveler to Switzerland, I find that Basel offers a remarkable display of specialness not found elsewhere.
Reputed to be one of the finest historical towns in Europe, Basel is well worth several days stopover. Whether you come by train or by plane, it is an ideal walking town whose charming architectural endowments are pleasantly revealed by casual strolls through the old quarters, or by sitting at sunny cafe terraces above the Rhine on lazy afternoons and scanning the red-tile rooftops of Lesser Basel on the other side.
Still-inhabited 14th-century houses or stately 18th-century homes line the narrow alleys of the Heuberg and Nadelberg leading up from Basel's Birsig Valley , while the three remaining city gates vividly remind one of the walled town it once was during the Middle Ages.
The birthday-cake facade of the late Gothic Rathaus (Council House) with its glaring, colored murals and emblems graces the broad cobbled marktplatz bustling with vegetable-, meat-, and cheese-laden stalls on market days in the center of Basel. And dominating the skyline from the old town's highest hill stands the twin-spired red-sandstone minster, which was partially destroyed by a severe earthquake in 1356 and later rebuilt.
Trams and buses are easy to use and can also be taken into the outskirts to good departure points such as Aesch or Dornach for hikes among the tranquil hills and forests of the Jura that form Basel's hinterland. Some 70 marked trails lead past pastured farms and orchards, castle ruins, 15th-century churches, and quiet country inns boasting wholesome traditional Swiss cooking. On clear autumn days, you can see the distant snowcapped Alps across misty valleys from hilltop vantage points.
Most hotels are centrally located and there is also a superb $2.2 million youth hostel with 226 beds in the St. Alban Vorstadt a recently renovated old section of town on the Rhine with medieval houses, the remnants of a Cluny abbey , parts of the town wall, and the new Contemporary Art Museum within 20 minutes walk from the station.
The home of the Renaissance humanists and Switzerland's oldest university, Basel offers 23 museums, some of which are considered among the best in Europe, if not the world.
Apart from the renowned Kunstmuseum, one notable museum certainly worth mentioning is the Barfusser Church Historical Museum. Incorporating one of the most important historical collections in Switzerland, this former Franciscan church was reopened last summer after six years of careful restoration and revamping.
With artifacts from the Celtic and Roman periods, Gothic sculptures and tapestries, medieval altars, weapons, coins, jewelry, silver and gold goblets, and even 15th-to-17th-century rooms taken in their entirety from Basel houses, the museum provides a fascinating glimpse into this town's remarkable cultural and social past.
Only a small fraction of the collection is actually exhibited, but balanced presentation with careful lighting, explanatory models, and audio-visual aids have not overloaded the general overview, and they help create an aesthetically pleasing and stimulating experience for children and adults alike.
Basel, not surprisingly, also has its fair share of restaurants and cafes. Facing the Rhine in the St. Alban Vorstadt stands Basel's oldest inn, the late-Gothic ''Zum Goldenen Sternen,'' a fine restaurant with tasty Swiss- and French-style cuisine.
For less elaborate and less expensive palates, the traditional burgher taverns, such as the ''Lowenzorn'' with its courtyard garden at 2 Gemsberg near the marketplace, offer varied dishes. This particular restaurant has several different sections and menus, allowing you to eat for $3 among students, or more sumptuously for $15 with local merchants, while still enjoying an overall boisterous atmosphere.
Cafe theaters and jazz cellars are another Basel specialty. Although on a much smaller scale, you can enjoy an informal artistic scene similar to that of Berlin, Amsterdam, or London.
At the Cafe zum Teufel at the Andreasplatz, for example, you can listen to a varied selection of experimental music or new theater by mainly Swiss and German artists. When performances are not being held, it is an ideal place to simply read newspapers, or toenjoy light snacks at wooden tables inside or by the fountain in the courtyard, all in a very casual atmosphere.
One of the best-known jazz and rock cafes is the Atlantis at the Klosterberg near the main theater and opera house complex. It featuresgroups from Switzerland, West Germany, England, and even the United States. Sporting a mainly young crowd, I found it an enjoyable and lively place, although veteran jazz connoisseurs maintain it is not as good as it used to be.