Discovering Basel City
A Historic Jewish Landmark
TODAY, WE EMBARK ON AN ENCHANTING TRIP, TO THE SWISS CITY OF BASEL IN THE UPPER RHINE REGION, RIGHT AT THE HEART OF EUROPE. A JOURNEY TO THE PAST THAT WILL TAKES US TO WHERE, MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, THEODOR HERZL AND A GROUP OF JEWISH LEADERS LAID THE FOUNDATIONS FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE JEWISH STATE, DURING THE LEGENDARY FIRST ZIONIST CONGRESS.
"IF YOU WILL IT, IS NO DREAM"
MORE THAN SEVEN DECADES AFTER THE CREATION OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL, THIS TINY CITY, WHICH SINCE 1970 HAS BECOME THE WORLD’S ART MECCA IS, A PERFECT JEWISH UNCOVERING DESTINATION TO VISIT.
By JWstaff, published on JW 2018
" Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word -which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it." -Theodor Herzl.
LEFT: Rhin River view, Basel City ./ RIGHT: Theodor Herzl, at Les Trois Rois Hotel Balcony, Basel 1897.
BASEL, BASLE, BÂLE: SOME HISTORY.
The City of Basel lies at the center of Europe in the northwestern corner of Switzerland, right in the upper Rhine region, located at the Dreiländereck— Three Countries' Corner— where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. Named Basilia in the Roman era, this German-speaking city port borders the French region of Alsace and the German Black Forest along the Rhine River, which curves through the city dividing the town into Kleinbasel [Little Basel] and Grossbasel [Great Basel] with its beautiful medieval old town center.
As Switzerland's only port, Basel has been central to the regional development of trade and cultural exchange. The city boasts its country's oldest university, the University of Basel, founded in 1460. It has been one of Europe's most senior intellectual centers, which attracted many leading artists, scholars, and teachers. This charming city, a key center of innovation in tune with a long history of scientific and scholarly excellence, was host and residence to several personalities such as physician Paracelsus, humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam, philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Jaspers, artist Hans Holbein the Younger, theologian Karl Barth, mathematician Leonhard Euler and Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionism movement, among others.
A CULTURAL ART MECCA
A significant economic and world-leading financial center and the seat of the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry, Basel built its famous name as synonyms to “art.” Thanks to its renowned Art Basel fair, held every June since 1970, the city gained its indisputable title as the “Art Mecca” of the world. With one-third of its population international, culture thrives in this enchanting city.
A global cultural metropolis with around 40 museums, 25 theaters, the world’s largest fair for art, watches, and jewelry has the highest per capita spending on culture. It contains the country’s highest concentration of museums, many of them supported by businesses and private foundations that actively support the arts and have financed famous museums across the globe.
Art is central to Basel’s history. In 1661, the city acquired The Amerbach Cabinet, the art collection built by Basilius Amerbach, a prominent Basel citizen. It was opened to the public, becoming the first municipality to possess its own art collection. It is held today at the Kunstmuseum Basel (Basel Museum of Art), whose long-established collections span a unique range of high-quality art from the 16th to the 21st century.
In 1919, this city was the first Swiss Canton (state) to create a special fund to purchase artworks.
The Kunsthalle Basel is another institution that had also promoted and cultivated International contemporary art for over a century. Rich in architecture, old and new, Basel combines world-class art museums with high-quality, modern architecture. Today, the region contains pioneering museum structures designed by internationally renowned architects, such as Frank Gehry with his Vitra Design Museum, Herzog & de Meuron with The Schaulager, Renzo Piano with the Fondation Beyeler, and Mario Botta and Jean Tinguely, among others, strengthening Basel’s reputation as a world-class art museum destination.
UNDER HERZL'S FOOTSTEPS:
BASEL WALKING TOURS
There can only be a few other cityscapes where buildings dating back to the fifteenth-century blend so harmoniously with contemporary buildings designed by internationally renowned architects. From the Renaissance Rathaus [town hall] to the famous Spalentor [Gate of Spalen] or the largest site of Roman ruins, Augusta Raurica, Basel offers several beautiful tours around the city.
These historical tours cover buildings such as the lovely red-stone Romanesque Basel Münster [cathedral] and the Pfalz viewing platform, or the Mittlere Brücke [Middle Bridge]; and sites such as the Museum der Kulturen and the Tinguely Fountain, which have become authentic landmarks.
But perhaps one of the most "symbolic" tours is the one that gives us the chance to discover the critical role Basel played in the history of the Jewish people.
A journey back through the ages, the historic Jewish walking tour is a must.
There are many places with traces of Jewish history in the city, from medieval times to the modern-day, as Jewish traders came to the town in the early Middle Ages. The first Jewish community dates back to the early 13th century. This fascinating and enchanting walking tour takes you from the streets of those Jewish communities, famous for their Talmudic prints, to the Jewish Museum in Switzerland.
The tour visits the place where the First Zionist Congress was held in 1897.
Convened and chaired by Theodor Herzl at the historic Stadtcasino concert hall, this place is considered the Zionist organization's birthplace. The congress manifesto developed there, known today as the Basel Program, became the first step into a long "Dream Journey" for the creation of the State of Israel.
Many of the events that take place in Basel have a long tradition. Every winter, the famous Fasnacht Carnival, which dates back to the 14th century, starts with the Morgestraich (lantern parade) at 4 am, when the city plunged into the night, and the cliques (lanterns) take control, with nonstop traditional music bands and parades lasting 72 hours.
Every summer, the city hosts the Art Basel fair for modern classics and contemporary art. Baselworld, a watch, and jewelry show, among others, at the city's latest landmark, exhibition center developed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron.
The Rhine is the real lifeblood of Basel, and it's the city's enduring landmark. You can move across the Rhine by Fähri, along a steel rope, silently drawn by the current between the two banks of the river. Day excursions up and down, on large motorboats depart from Schifflände, near the Grossbasel end of Mittlere Brücke. The most popular one is the one that starts in Grossbasel just below the Münster.
On hot summer days, swimming in the Rhine is the most popular sport activity in town, and you can enjoy a nice lunch at the side of the river in historical places such as the historic Krafft hotel cafe next to the bridge in the old city.
The old city's shopping streets are closed to car traffic, so the best way to experience the city is by foot. You can travel around the town with an extensive tram (light rail). The Freiestrasse is the main shopping street in the town, and it is where you will find all the international labels and the most exquisite boutiques. Small charming shops can be found on nearby Spalenberg. At the Food Market on Marktplatz, you can get local products from the region or the Flea Market at Petersplatz.
The city's unique location on the border triangle has profoundly influenced its cuisine, which makes Basel a culinary destination.
You can even find some kosher places and products at Restaurant & Bakery Toppas (Meaty), Restaurant Holbeinhof (Dairy), the Krebs Bakery, and at the Butcher Shop & Grocery at Friedrichstrasse.
All hotels in Basel, including the youth hostels, offer each registered guest a free "Mobility Pass" upon check-in. Buying a 24- hour Basel Card at the tourism office gives you free unlimited travel in the city, open boat cruise, a city tour, and discounted access to most museums, boat cruises, restaurants, shopping, and even other tickets.
This Article was updated to online version in March 2021