English travellers have hitherto been too much in the habit of considering Basle merely as a halting-place for the night, which they quit as soon as they are furnished with horses.
John Murray seemed to be a fan of Basel, a city that I knew very well given that my ex-girlfriend and some of my best friends lived there. Well, at least I thought that I knew it well; following the notes in “Murray’s Handbook For Traveller’s In Switzerland 1838”, I discovered parts of the city that I previously did not know existed.
As I mingled with the hordes of tourists, all reading their modern Lonely Planets, Rough Guides, DKs, Fodors, Berlitz and Baedekers it dawned on me how little had changed from those avid Victorian English travellers who instead used Murray as their guide. I was now one of them, only on a carbon framed bicycle… dressed in lycra.
With the first six routes all starting here, I had plenty of time to explore the city, working my way down Murray’s list of highlights.
The Cathedral or Münster on the high bank on the left of the Rhine, above the bridge, distinguished by its two spires and the deep red colour of the sandstone of which it is built, is an interesting and picturesque edifice, though not of beautiful architecture.
I had observed Basler Münster cathedral on many occasions before, however it had taken Murray’s notes for me to notice the statues of “St. George and The Dragon, and St.Martin and The Beggar.” I worked my way around the building, noting with great interest Murray’s observations – the “4 columns of detached pillars”, “the tomb of the empress Anne”, “a stone font, date 1465”, “statues of Christ and St.Peter, and of the wise and foolish virgins”.
In my experience, virgins, whether wise or foolish, are a rarity in modern day Basel and that can largely be blamed on the Erasmus Programme, which brings together students from all across Europe. I only thought it right that “on the left of the altar, against a pillar, is the red marble tombstone of Erasmus, who died here in 1536.”
On further investigation, I learned that the Dutch philosopher had died of dysentery during a visit to the city which prompted me to make as quick an exit as I could.
I followed Murray’s route up “the staircase, leading out of the choir”… “into a small apartment – the Chapter House, or Conciliums Saal.” This historic room was used in the 1430’s as the council meeting rooms and Murray pointed out that by 1837 it had been “quite unaltered since”.
From there, I headed down to the “very extensive and picturesque Cloisters.”, which in 1837 “still serve, as they have done for centuries, as a burial place, and are filled with tombs.” It was when I read that “it is not unlikely they may have been the favourite resort of Erasmus”, that I decided to quickly get back on my bike and ride to safer ground, my stomach growling with the fear of diarrhoea and rectal tenesmus – a more deadly medieval form of IBS perhaps.
Behind the Minster is a Terrace, called Die Pfalz nearly 60 ft. above the river, planted with 10 chesnut trees, and commanding a beautiful view over the Rhine, the town, and the Black Forest hills.
I often think, when stood under such ancient trees, of what sights they have seen over the centuries. The very same chestnut tree I was now leaning my bike against at Pfalz, had warranted the attention of John Murray some 178 years earlier, and had no doubt witnessed everything from barbaric acts as the Protestants overruled the Catholics in the 1500s through to students fencing, drunken revellers relieving their bladders and possibly even the occasional wiseman and fool losing their virginity.
Next to Pfalz, I headed to Allgemeine Lesegesellschaft, the building that John Murray described as the highlight of Basel. “In a square of considerable size – in one corner, of which, in a recess, stands the Public Library.”
Murray was impressed by the library’s 50,000 books, which included “the Acts of the Council of Bale, 3 volumes, with chains attached to the binding”, and the “many very important manuscripts, of which there is a good catalogue, and a few of the books of Erasmus; also a copy of his ‘Praise of Folly’, with marginal illustrations by the pen of Holbein.”
Above all… its Gallery of Works of Holbein deserve some attention.
It was the Gallery Of Paintings and Drawings by the younger Holbein on the ground floor that most caught his attention and he went into detail, devoting a whole page of the Handbook listing the highlights of “a highly interesting collection of the works of that master”.
He points out that Holbein was born in Basle in 1489 but “was by no means prosperous; he was even reduced to work as a day labourer and house painter, and painted the outer walls of the houses of the town.”
But the best story of the painter, highlights that it is not just modern builders who can not be relied on, as he tells the tale of when Holbein was working on two jobs at the same time:
It is related of him that, being employed to decorate the shop of an apothecary, who was intent on keeping the young artist close to his work, and being disposed to repair to a neighbouring wineshop, he painted a pair of legs so exactly like his own on the underside of the scaffolding, that the apothecary seated below believed him to be constantly present and diligently employed.
The “number of antiquities, bronzes, fragments of pottery, coins, etc” that were on display in the lower story of the library in 1837 have since been moved back to where they were found at the Roman Augusta Raurica museum, which I would visit later on my cycle.
In the street opposite the library and the cathedral, was my next stop.
Besides the Library mentioned above there is a small and not very important Museum of Natural History, placed in a building near the Minster.
John Murray obviously visited the Naturhistorisches Museum Basel at a bad time in its long history – the then 16 year old collection was based in a private house at Falkensteinerhof am Münsterplatz 11. Its collection had been fought over when the canton split, with Basel-Landschaft finally agreeing to keep the share of what its citizens had paid for in Basel-Stadt. In 1849, just 12 years after Murray’s visit, the museum had outgrown its “small” premises and moved down the street to the former Augustiner-monastery, which was owned by the university. Its “not very important” collection changing in status over the years and today boasts over 7.7 million exhibits covering virtually all aspects of natural science: from the history of Planet Earth to rocks and minerals, and from extinct mammoths to living insects.
Just around the corner, I headed to another Murray recommendation.
The terraced Garden of M. Vischer, an eminent banker, overlooking the Rhine, is a very pretty spot
Hohenfirstenhof is now a private house at Rittergasse 19, and still belonging to the Vischer family – a well lineaged clan with their own organisation (vischer.org) – you can overlook the garden and the blue building from the adjacent Wettsteinbrücke, which was built in 1877, forty years after Murray visited.
Next stop though was the university, the oldest in Switzerland, dating back to 1460. Finding the original building, or at least those that still stood in 1837, was hard work. Today, it is a sprawling campus which caters for over 15,000 students with 90 buildings in 40 different locations all over the city. The oldest remaining buildings surround the cathedral, including the University’s original headquarters (from 1489 until 1939) nearby at Rheinsprung 9 and 11.
It once enjoyed a high reputation, and numbered among the lists of its professors the names of Erasmus, Euler, and Bernouilli – the two last, mathematicians and natives of Basle. The University has been greatly injured by the recent and unjust seizure of part of its funds by the country division of the canton.
Today, Universität Basel is highly thought of once more, however in Murray’s times it was suffering greatly from the bloody civil war that, just three years earlier, had split the canton – a battle that had been inflamed by the university itself. The liberal country folk of Basel strongly rejected the fact that most of their taxes were being redirected to the conservative city centre, including to fund the university – higher education was something farmers were largely ignorant of – and after their unlikely victory at the Battle of Hülftenschanz, the canton split in two with the university suffering greatly as a result, surrendering 60% of its assets to the newly formed Basel-Landschaft canton.
Having left the pretty Old Town narrow streets, I was now in the busy market square.
The Rathhaus, in the Market place, is a building of pleasing Burgundian Gothic architecture, founded 1508, and recently repaired without changing its character… The frieze contains the emblazoned shields of the original Swiss cantons; the armorial bearing of canton Basle is said to be meant to represent the case of a cross bow.
The picture postcard Rathaus Basel is an impressive structure; its red brick standing out amongst the designer stores, restaurants and McDonalds that sit next to it. Despite the majesty of the town hall, or “Roothuus”, as the locals call it with a play on words which is possible with their dialect, I always find the highlight of the market square to be the cake shop opposite. Well I say the cake shop. I should really say the cake shop’s name, which always seems to draw a smile from English, American and Australian tourists, whilst directing their cameras at its ornate sign. German speakers will probably be baffled as to this schoolboy humour, however the German word for shit, “Scheisse”, is pronounced “schiesser” in English (with “e” and “i” being different in both languages). Therefore, Confiserie Schiesser, does not sound the most appealing of tea rooms.
As it opened in 1870, 33 years after his visit – and, as with Erasmus’s dysentery – Murray pays no mention to any shits. Besides, he would probably have been too distracted across the square in the Rathaus with its “statue of Munatins Plancus, the founder, according to tradition, of Bale and of the Roman colony of Augst”, where I was to later cycle.
The Arsenal contains a limited collection of ancient armour, of which the only curiosities are a suit of chain mail, once gilt with plate mail beneath it, worn by Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy; two Burgundian cannon, of iron bars bound round with hoops ; and several suits of Burgundian and Armagnac armour
The old Zeughaus building, which Murray describes in an unimpressed tone, has long since gone. Having stood on Petersplatz from 1339, it was sadly demolished exactly 600 years later to make room for a new university building (the Kollegienhaus). Its collection has since been moved to the Historisches Museum Basel, where, even to this day, they advertise, “On show here are some artfully wrought gun barrels, original watercolours of Charles the Bold’s lost jewels, and a lamellar cuirass thought to have belonged to Charles the Bold himself.”
Near to the location of the old Zeughaus on Petersplatz is the impressive Spalentor, (referred to as the Paulusthor by Murray, meaning St Paul’s Gate).
The gateways, battlemented works, watch-towers, and ditch, which formed the ancient defences of the town, remain in a good state of preservation. The Paulusthor retains its advanced work or Barbican, similar to those which formerly existed at York, and with its double portcullis and two flanking towers is particularly picturesque. The machicolations are supported by strange but clever figures approaching to the grotesque.
The fortress like turrets seem to differ slightly from the pointed roofs of portraits made during Murray’s times however the most notable change is how the city has grown around it. Long gone are the city walls, and the gate’s imposing grandeur is now somewhat lost amongst the bustling traffic, trams, buses and delivery trucks, which it almost appears to inconvenience due to its location on a busy corner.
Other than “their time-serving, their love of money, and their readiness to fight for any paymaster” (nowadays making it, taking it, hiding it and, most certainly, not talking about it), one thing that has also remained a constant in Switzerland since Murray’s writings is its cleanliness.
Basle is scarcely surpassed in cleanliness, even by the towns of Holland; its streets are plentifully supplied with fountains; and it would indeed be a reproach to the inhabitants, if, with the rapid and abundant current of the Rhine to cleanse them from all filth, they were allowed to remain dirty
And talking of timekeeping…
Down to the end of the last century (1795), the clocks of Basle went an hour in advance of those in other places of Europe – a singular custom, the origin of which is not precisely known. According to tradition it arose from the circumstance of a conspiracy to deliver the town to an enemy at midnight having been defeated by the clock striking 1 instead of 12
Back on the river, I headed to the Mittlere Brücke (middle bridge), which in 1837 would have just been called “The Bridge”, seeing as it was the only crossing across The Rhine in the city.
Attached to the clock tower on the bridge is a grotesque head, called Lällenkönig, which, by the movement of the pendulum, is constantly protruding its long tongue and rolling its goggle eyes – making faces, it is said, at Little Basle, on the opposite side of the river
As if to prove how quickly times were changing in Switzerland, the clock tower (or the Rheintor as it was known) was demolished in February 1839, barely a few months after Murray published his book. Apparently, the locals did not complain as the clock seldomly told the correct time and the tower was creating bottlenecks with people trying to cross the bridge.
The original moving Lällenkönig (Basel Tongue King) is now also in the Historisches Museum Basel, whilst, overlooking the bridge at Schifflände 1, above the Restaurant Lällekönig, you can find both a motionless stone replica from 1914, and a comical moving version from 1941.
Other quirky facts about Basel appeared in Murray’s Handbook.
The ancient sumptuary laws of Basle were singular and severe. On Sunday all must dress in black to go to church; females could not have their hair dressed by men; carriages were not permitted in the town after 10 at night, and it was forbidden to place a footman behind a carriage.
Apparently, the Swiss love of following rules seemed to date back to ancient times. Either that, or they obeyed the Weightwatchers program of the day:
The official censors, called Unzichterherrn, had the control of the number of dishes and wines to be allowed at a dinner party, and their authority was supreme on all that related to the cut and quality of clothes. At one time they waged desperate war against slashed doublets and hose.
Back in 1837, Methodism had its stronghold in Basel and religious laws seemed to dictate the way of life:
Even now should the traveller arrive at the gates of the town on Sunday during church-time, he will find them closed, and his carriage will be detained outside till the service is over.
And in keeping with the Swiss love of money, the city earned a reputation as expensive money lenders – the church being the payday loan company of its time back in the 1680s.
5 per cent was styled a “Christian usance” (einen Christlichen zins) and a proclamation of the magistrates (1682-84) denounced those who lent money at a discount of 4 or 31⁄2 per cent as “selfish, avaricious and dangerous persons;” those who lent their capital at a lower rate were liable to have it confiscated because, forsooth, such persons, “by their avarice did irremediable injury to churches, hospitals, church property etc and are the ruin of poor widows and orphans.”
Visiting fresh after the bloody civil war that had split the canton into “Basle Ville and Basle Campagne”, Murray explained how the city had been saddled with a debt of two million francs and when the two had to vote nationally, their deputies shared half a vote each. This obviously had its problems.
When the deputies of the two parts take opposite sides, which hitherto has been invariably the case, their vote does not count.
On leaving Basel, I headed along the left bank of The Rhine, over the French border, to Huningue.
About two miles out of the town, just within the French frontier, is the ruined fortress of Huningen, erected by Louis XV to overawe his Swiss neighbours, and dismantled in 1815
Life at the fortress is evoked at the Musée Historique et Militaire, however no visit to this Alsace suburb of Basel is complete without crossing the La Passerelle des Trois Pays (Three Countries Bridge, or Dreiländerbrücke), the world’s longest single-span pedestrian and cyclist bridge. Built in 2007, 170 years after John Murray visited the town, it joins France with Weil am Rhein in Germany, whilst overlooking Basel.
I cycled back into Switzerland from the German side.
The traveller, entering Switzerland by Basle, is particularly recommended to take the following route by the Val Moutier, or Munster Thai, on his way either to Berne or Geneva.
So indeed, that’s what I would do…
Drei Konige (Three Kings), well situated, over-looking The Rhine, which washes its walls – a good inn, but expensive; dinner at the table d’hote, 3 fr. at 1 o’clock – 4 fr. at 5 o’clock – in private, 6 fr.
The Grand Hotel Le Trois Rois is today a 5 star grand hotel with one of the best restaurants in the world. It is amongst the oldest hotels in Europe and remains expensive with rooms from CHF315 per night. Dinner at its Cheval Blanc restaurant (3 Michelin stars and 19 Gault Millau points) ranges from CHF60 at lunch – CHF140 in the evening.
The Stork (Cigogne), good
Once one of the best hotels in Switzerland and the first in Basel to have central heating and electric lights, it closed down on the the 30 September 1953, and was demolished in 1957 to make way for the ugly building which houses the Finanzdepartement des Kantons Basel-Stadt (Department Of Finance) at Fischmarkt 10.
Krone (Crown); Kopf (Tete d’Or)
Both hotels have closed down, however I know little about their locations
[FOR A MAP OF ALL THE PLACES VISITED ON THIS ROUTE, CLICK HERE]
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