Basel is a place that will always be dear to me. I first came here as a 20-year-old college student on a junior year abroad. Totally unfamiliar with the history and lore of this city, I was plunged into a world of medieval lanes, a red sandstone Munster (cathedral), an annual celebration with fife and drums corps, outsize masks, and traditional foods that lasts for a week and is a cross between Mardi Gras and an informal roast of all things proper called “Fasnacht.” I had the good fortune to live with a wonderful family, the Metzgers, and to become one of their adopted American daughters. One could call it culture shock, or love at first sight – it was both!
Returning now, 48 years later, almost to the day, I am overwhelmed and in love all over again with this quirky beautiful place. Found at the very heart of Europe, wedged between France and Germany, Basel may be one of the most unique cities on the planet. Here the local dialect is a sing-song mixture of cockney-fied German, idiomatic expressions and puns, with French words thrown in for good measure.
One is much better off not attempting high German here! English is more acceptable to the independent-minded Swiss. Basel is justly proud of its traditions, its medieval Old Town, its art museums, its famous Big Pharma (Roche and Novartis are headquartered here), its banks, and its culture, high and low.
During our first full day here, we were led to the Old Town by my Swiss mother, Ingrid, always an adventurer, who now gets around on a motorized scooter.
Ingrid took me under her wing when I was naive but attempting to be all too worldly wise, and helped put a solid foundation under the feet of a homesick girl. The year was 1968, a time of great upheaval, and Ingrid and her husband Martin generously allowed me to become part of their young family – Katrin, Maja (after whom my lovely Maya was named) and Lucas – became my adopted siblings.
What a time we had! Looking through the old photo albums of family dinners, birthday parties, Christmas, and uncountable Sunday hikes, I feel – again and more deeply – how terribly lucky I was to land with the Metzgers on Adlerstrasse. This is my third trip back and each time I am again welcomed like a daughter.
Ingrid took us to the Old Town via St. Alban-Tal, past the original city wall and the Paper Mill Museum which originally began producing paper in 1453.
Mohammed and I had to walk quickly to keep up! Ingrid buzzes about like a Mayfly on her scooter, pausing only for us to catch up before she zooms off again. She treated us to coffee creme at one of the most famous Basel restaurants, Gasthof zum Goldenen Sternen (the Golden Star Guest House) which sits facing the Rhine River.
Then she buzzed off home, and we wandered the streets of Basel, where I once again marveled at what good builders the Swiss are. Everything here lasts! Most of the buildings in the Old Town were constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, yet they stand, proud as always above the river. We crossed the Mittlere Brucke (middle bridge) over the Rhine and wound up wandering along the river, much as we had done along the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Here one finds cafes a plenty, and we stopped at the East West Hotel cafe to sit at one of the wooden picnic tables and enjoy a snack, Basel-style. We could see the traditional Basel ferries crossing the river from the Munster on the city side, or Gross Basel (literally Big Basel) to Klein Basel (Little Basel) where we sat enjoying the sunshine and an amazing apple tart.
Then we walked back to Adlerstrasse using the shortcuts and winding paths Ingrid had shown us, logging more than eleven miles that day. It was splendid to be back in this unique place and equally splendid to share it with Mohammed.