A day at the Merian Garten

Time with people we love always passes too quickly. Our final days in Basel with the Metzger family went by in a blur, but it was a memorable one! So much beauty, so little time. One of the highlights was a trip to the Merian Garten, a huge tract of land donated to Basel by Christoph and Margaretha Merian and made into a wonderful family-friendly park.

Part of the larger Botanishcher Garten der Stadt Basel, this place was a surprise for me since it was created after I left Basel following my initial stay as a student in 1968-69. It is filled with secret corners, amazing plants, a little stream, and a hillside of purple flowers that stopped me in my tracks. Ingrid on her scooter, and Mohammed and I on foot, wandered from one amazing vista to the next.

The Merian estate includes a large mansion, several gate houses, a stable, and countless gardens and greenhouses, all for public use. At the back of the mansion is a very schmantzy restaurant and a lovely pond filled with lily pads and carp.

My adopted Swiss mother who is a pro at discovering and sharing beautiful places, led us through the gardens and along a path from the restaurant to another, less fancy, kid-friendly emporium where we could serve ourselves.

There, we chose our food from a sumptuous buffet, including a salad bar, a hot menu of the day, a “kinder buffet” designed for children, pastries, desserts, and infinite beverages, all hosted by Migros, the Swiss supermarket chain. We sat on an outside terrace where children and dogs were welcome, and a group of elderly residents of a nearby assisted living facility were enjoying a private dining experience in a downstairs room. It was a melange of people and food!

After coffee and dessert, we made our way home through the streets and parks of Basel, back to Adlerstrasse for a rest. The next day would find us on a train to Zurich to visit dear friends and former neighbors. More on that in another post.

Surrealism on the banks of the Rhine

Basel is full of surprises. And it is fitting that one of the twentieth century’s most surprising artists, Jean Tinguely (1925 – 1991), grew up here. Known for his avant garde sculptures that mock the machine age, Tinguely was also a painter and something of a philosopher in the “Dada” or surrealist tradition. His work is playful, ironic, and at times, menacing. Mostly, it simply delights.

When I suggested a visit to the the Kuntsmuseum, Basel’s main art museum, I could see Mohammed’s eyes glaze over. So, the Tinguely Museum in Klein Basel seemed a better choice. It proved to be a completely joyful romp!

Designed by Mario Botta, an architect from the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the building itself is a work of art. Set on the banks of the Rhine River, it perfectly showcases the “metamechanics” Tinguely created – everything from chairs, to chandeliers, to roaring racing cars, to cannons, and perhaps most famously, fountains.

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We arrived at the same time as a little boy and his grandmother, and he dashed through the galleries, deftly pushing the floor pedals that operate these whimsical creations. Once a pedal is pushed, the sculpture roars to life, and it cannot be restarted for a fixed period to save wear and tear. So we followed in the boy’s footsteps, led by his laughter and sing-song Basel dialect as he exclaimed over each new delight.

When the hammer came down on the head of the furry blue creature, we all cracked up. One of the guards alerted us when enough time had passed so that we could have a turn pushing the pedals and bring the kinetic sculptures to life. Mohammed was entranced. We went from gallery to gallery playing with Tinguely’s strange creations.

At last, we made our way to the cafe, where the waiter suggested a wonderful wine from the Ticino – a white Merlot  – not something I’d ever run across. It was lively, fruity yet dry, and absolutely delish!

A transplant from Sicily, our waiter now lives in Basel with his wife and six-year-old daughter, and he insisted on giving us a precious little panna cotta topped with raspberry glaze. And so we had dessert before dinner. Yum!

Thus fortified, we walked across the bridge and returned to the Gross Basel side of the Rhine. There, we found ourselves inexorably drawn back to the Goldenen Sternen for dinner on the outside terrace. Mohammed had the lamb, and I had the plate of the day, veal with traditional spatzle, a wonderful egg pasta with herbs.

We walked back to Adlerstrasse in the dusk, through St. Albans Tor, and then on the gravel path of Gelertstrasse, where Baslers walk their very well behaved dogs. Walking everywhere during our stay has taught me so much I missed about Basel in my initial year abroad. Back then, I usually took the tram. One of the delights of this trip in addition to great food, great art, and great company, has been getting lost in this delightful city.

 

 

Walking down memory lane

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.

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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.