Basel: a bledn of cultures at a bend in the Rhine

IN Basel the one topic you never discuss in polite company is money. And with a cluster of giant pharmaceutical companies like Ciba-Geigy, Rohrer, and others along the Rhine River here, Basel has plenty of money not to talk about. Sitting astride the Rhine at the crossroads of three countries (West Germany and France are literally a stone's throw beyond the city limits), Basel made its first money in trade. At a time when Zurich was still a lakeside village and Bern (the current capital of Switzerland) was a charming medieval walled city, possessing an entertaining clock, Basel was important enough to be the site of a church council aimed at heading off the Reformation.

The proximity to France and West Germany has produced an atmosphere more international than typically Swiss. When the Huguenots were driven out of France in the 18th century, a goodly number of them fled to Basel. They brought a distinctively French flavor to the city that is apparent in the architecture of the homes they built around the stately red sandstone M"unster (cathedral). On first sight you might think you had been whisked off to Paris.

Some of Basel's knack for making money must have rubbed off on the new citizens, because these Huguenot residences are grand homes indeed. Yet the Baseler's passion for discretion shows up here, too. The main doorway of each home is large enough to accommodate a carriage so merchants who lived along this block could receive guests and clients in privacy. The Kirschgarten Museum is a former mansion that has been preserved in this style.

Whereas Zurich seems to make money for money's sake, Basel has returned much of its success into its museums and cultural institutions. The Kunstmuseum has a splendid mixture of paintings and sculpture from all periods. Plus it has the added advantage of manageable size. Hans Holbein the Elder and Younger both worked in Basel, and the Kunstmuseum's large collection of their paintings can be absorbed on the same visit as the wild modern art on the upper floors.

Basel's Town Theater is admired for its innovative stage and opera productions. Singers from all over the world, including many promising young Americans, have gotten their start here. Among them is Grace Bumbry. And you're just as likely to see advertisements at the town kiosks for contemporary jazz, outrageous avant-garde cabaret, or the latest films from Europe and the United States.

The city is traditionally divided by the Rhine, and with much rivalry, into Gross-Basel (Greater Basel) on the west side of the river and Klein-Basel (Lesser Basel) on the eastern side. Most of the important sights can be seen on foot, starting out at the Kunstmuseum and walking through Gross-Basel parallel to the Rhine, working your way down to the banks of the river and then back up to the lovely M"unster.

Start walking along the Steinenberg, then turn right to the Barfusserplatz (Barefoot Square) opposite the Historisches Museum (Historical Museum). Visitors often mistake this former Franciscan church for the M"unster. Art treasures inside from all periods of Basel's history include Carolingian frescoes, a medieval ``Dance of Death,'' by Conrad Witz, and the ``L"allenk"onig,'' a king rolling his eyes and sticking out his tongue, which once adorned one of the Rhine bridges on the Gross-Basel side and was meant to taunt the Klein-Baselers.

Just outside, on every other Wednesday, a flea market breaks out and jams the square in front of the museum. You can buy or rummage through anything from secondhand clothes to fine antiques or even all kinds of hats. The Swiss do seem especially sober and industrious on the surface, but they have a delightfully whimsical side that is revealed in things like the flea market or the statue known as ``The Sleeping Girl,'' situated just up the stairs from the Tinguely Fountain (another outburst of whimsy) in the plaza behind the Town Theater. The prone metal figure looks disarmingly like a sleeping person when the light is low; it is meant simply to startle.

Shopping in Switzerland is excellent. Watches are as much as 50 percent cheaper than in the United States, and the best shopping is found along the Spalenberg with its mix of small boutiques, bookshops, and department stores. But always keep in mind that Swiss goods are not what we would call cheap. A bargain to the Swiss is getting good value at a fair price.

Walking along past the Fischmarktbrunnen (Fish Market Fountain), you come to the Mittlere Rheinbr"ucke (Middle Rhine Bridge). On the left is the Three Kings on the Rhine, Europe's oldest continuously occupied hotel. Across the river is Caf'e Spitz, offering a grand view of the busy Rhine and a good spot to rest and refresh. After lunch, your walk through Basel should take you back across the bridge to the winding Rheinsprung (Rhine Leap) and on to the M"unster.

But for all its own beauty, Basel cannot escape from its unique position astride three countries. And visitors to the city should not overlook this advantage. The borders are only lightly regulated, but don't forget your passport in case your car is chosen for a spot check. And, while enjoying the sophistication, culture, and shopping of modern Basel, you can make a day trip into France's Alsace. Twenty minutes beyond the border in Basel's suburbs is Mulhouse, with one of the finest collections of antique cars in the world.

And only an hour's drive along the majestic Rhine is medieval Colmar, which so delightfully illustrates the unique character of Alsace. Long fought over by both France and Germany, the region now offers visitors the best of both cultures freely intermingled: German art tempered by French food. After a visit to the Unter den Linden Museum, with its massive Isenheim altarpiece painted by Matthias Gruenewald, refresh yourself at the Maison des Tetes with its local specialties and haute cuisine.

Those who value nature's works over those of man can seek the quiet, mystical refuge of West Germany's Black Forest. Its dense mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees, which stretches for hundreds of square miles, begins less than half an hour from Basel's side of the Rhine. And with the recent precipitous decline of West Germany's forests from the ravages of pollution, a pilgrimage to one of Europe's greatest forests is all the more urgent.

Practical information: Both Swissair and TWA fly nonstop to Zurich where comfortable and efficient train service connect to Basel in less than two hours. But in choosing your airline, remember that Swissair has the currently popular, plastic Swiss watches (called Swatches) at bargain prices.

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