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Monet & marijuana
Basel is pocket-sized but the Swiss city offers world-class music, art and gastronomic fare.
I stepped out of Basel's Fondation Beyeler museum and into its Winter Garden feeling just as I had done when as a kid I'd lapped up a double sundae. The endorphins continued to buzz when I sat down to contemplate the painterly pond kissing the glass-walled facade of Renzo Piano's masterpiece, and the pastoral picture beyond.
Piano's pool outside was a clear reflection of Monet's Water Lily Pond inside, and his stepped, low-slung glass structure sat in communion with the rolling countryside. In the background, rounded hills stretched out seductively, as if beckoning to Giacometti's long-legged sculptures to go striding up their curves.
The sun went down. I went out to board Tram No. 6, which would take me from Riehen to Theaterplatz in the Old Town, where I was to join a Basel friend for a beer. We trundled speedily past vintage mansions, a sprawling green, quiet neighbourhoods lined with neat three-storey houses with balconies adorned with tubs of red - always bloody red - geraniums. In no more than 20 minutes, I was clinking glasses with my buddy at the elegant Campari Bar. Outside, in the autumn cold, skimpily clad teenagers were making merry at the Tinguely Fountain - a loopy, clanking creation of the local sculptor-painter, Jean Tinguely, celebrated for melding fantasy with technology. More examples of his work are on display at the Tinguely Museum, housed in a Mario Botta structure overlooking the Rhine.
Teenagers must be naturally cloaked in fur, I announced to my companion as I sipped on Feldschloesschen (brewed in the nearby town of Rheinfelden). The local brews, Ueli and Unser, are perfectly palatable but over the last decade that I've been visiting Basel I've grown to like Feldi better, nothing less.
Later, we walked down to Petersplatz to eat at the Herbstmesse (autumn bazaar), a ten-day annual event popular for its rides and food stalls. Despite the sound of children screaming as they rode on the Free Fall, I managed to concentrate on the fine flavour of sizzling raclette (an Alpine cheese eaten melted with boiled potatoes, pickled gherkins and onions) and crisp apfelkuechli, batter-fried apple rings dusted with cinnamon, which I consider a divine gift to the human palate. Sated, we walked back two festively illuminated kilometres to listen to a young Balkan band play at the 'Bird's Eye', a great little jazz bar near Barfusserplatz.
For a pocket-sized city, Basel offers world-class music and art - and gastronomic fare. With nearly 40 museums and 100 galleries, this old pharmaceutical town is abuzz all year round. In the summertime, there are, apart from the much-vaunted Basel Art Fair, free concerts in the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum and on a floating platform on the Rhine - that runs like a dark silk ribbon through the town and divides it into historic Grossbasel (Great Basel) on the south bank and newer, trendier Kleinbasel (Little Basel) on the north side. In the autumn, my favourite season here, there's ballet and opera (I watched Wozzeck and Rusalka ) at the Basel Theater. In the winter, there's the Fasnacht carnival, plus travelling art shows and music recitals all over the place, including inside erstwhile factories and railway depots.
Notably, the long-entrenched pharma industry - the smokestacks of which still enliven the skyline - has contributed in fair measure to Basel's vibrant cultural and intellectual tradition. Whatever the latterday marketing ploys, it has fostered an open and exploratory attitude in the resident populace - a local chemist discovered LSD here in 1943;nine Nobel Laureates studied here - and sponsored a number of art and study centres in the city. It has also commissioned some striking contemporary architecture. The Novartis Campus in St Johann is not to be missed: the management allows public tours of its buildings by famous signatures such as Frank Gehry, David Chipperfield, Peter Maerkli, Diener & Diener, Fumihiko Maki, and SAANA, Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas (the last two are in the making).
There's eye-catching architecture elsewhere in the city, too. Walk three minutes from the main railway station SBB to Aeschenpatz and you will see Botta's semi-circular zebra-striped office building;take a tram from Aeschenplatz to Pratteln and you will see the red plastic-fabricated football stadium by Herzog & de Meuron in St Jakob - and perhaps hear the fans, too. The city boasts one of Europe's top 16 football clubs, FC Basel, sponsored till recently by the wife of a Roche heir, Gigi Oeri, who founded the Puppenhaus Museum (Dollhouse Museum) with her personal collection of dolls and rare teddy bears, which I daresay every child under the age of 80 will like looking at.
Then there's the medieval city, marked by the Romanesque Muenster (cathedral) that looms over the Rhine and commemorates the Humanist, Erasmus. In the steep streets around it, you will find baroque mansions, gothic fountains, antique baselisks and cobbled streets with a chocolaterie or a jeweller's store here, a vintage hotel or a gourmet restaurant there.
Standing as it does at the corner where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, Basel boasts a multi-kulti cuisine. On one occasion, we footed it in five minutes from Novartis Campus to St Louis in Alsace to sample traditional French fare;on another, we drove in 40 to the Black Forest to do a trek and eat its renowned cake.
Basel's reputed chefs take pride in concocting delicacies of the area's mixed heritage. Peter Knogl, anointed Chef of the Year for 2011 by Gault-Millau, offers, among others, saffron risotto and lobster with bergamot and green apple at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. "I like infusing fresh vegetables, cheeses, and meat from the Swiss highlands with the aromatic herbs of France (including Moorish France). Of course, my sauces are lighter than those a French grandma would prepare, " the unassuming Bavarian-born star said. "I use butter and cream judiciously, and a dash more citron and wine in mine. "
Michael Bader of the old-worldly yet style-conscious Teufelhof hotel produces a fragrant pumpkin soup and tender venison steak with chestnut sauce: "Regional and seasonal - as your grandma must have told you?" Bader quipped when he stopped by at our table with proprietor Raphael Winiger.
"Here, we eat what's in season around the world. Guten Appetit!" remarked Christopher Duschl of Les Garecons, a smart fusion food restaurant in the Badischer Bahnhof station. I put my hand eagerly into their melting pot, and came up with cheesecake lassi, Thai red curry with veal sausage, and creme caramel laced with kaffir lime and coconut milk!
It's easy to be a gourmand in Basel - somewhat less so to be a gourmet - but then you can burn off those calories with simple outdoor exercise. What I often did was to go off on a long walk along the Rhine or in the Jura hills with a large bottle of spring water and a little bag of Basler Leckerli - a biscuit made from a 300-year-old recipe of flour, honey, nuts, orange-and-lemon essence, spices and schnapps - and come back feeling decidedly lighter in flesh and spirit.
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