Basel, Switzerland (Week 6)

Zum roten Engel
Cafe zum Roten Engel, Basel

I travel to Basel on a fairly regular basis, and while most people in Europe associate that city with the pharmaceutical industries on the edge of the old city and most North Americans don’t associate it with anything in particular, there are enough nooks and crannies that make it a pleasant place to visit. There is, for instance, the Andreasplatz, a small square with lots of ivy covering the ancient walls, a few small shops and Café zum Roten Engel (In the Red Angel). It’s tiny, it has a tiny terrace and a tiny counter, but the Wähe comes in generous slices, as does the coffee or tea to go with it. Wähe is the Swiss version of a fruit tart; there are savory kinds as well and I’d be compelled to say they’re the Swiss version of a quiche. Whatever is in season is slapped into them – good ones are not too sweet and there is more fruit than the cream & eggs filling, so the whole thing is relatively flat.

The Rheinsprung is another delightful place, or rather, a road. From near the Middle Bridge it goes up rather steeply towards the square next to the Münster (the city’s cathedral) and about 100 yards in on the left side, there is the so-called blue house, a baroque mansion that was built for a silk merchant in the second half of the 18th century. It has a ridiculously ornate wrought-iron fence and local guides tell the story of how this house and its neighbor played an important role in the history of Basel’s pharmaceutical industry.

Blue House Basel
Das blaue Haus

Both mansions were owned by silk traders (brothers, in fact) and in order to dye silk, an industry developed first in France, and then in the surrounding countries. Basel was favored because of the permissive legal climate when it came to the chemical processes involved in creating artificial dyes (it was easy to steal other people’s secrets without repercussions), and its location on the Rhine river, whose waters provided transportation. The river was also a cheap and easy way to wash away the chemical leftovers. At the end of the Rheinsprung is the Münsterberg, the promontory with the best river view in Basel, and the cathedral itself, which has a beautiful Romanesque north gate, the Galluspforte.

Basel Munster
Basler Munster

A little bit more up and down from the cathedral will have you going up the steps of the Lohnhofgässlein lined with thick-walled age-old houses in pastel colors.

Lohnhofgasslein
Lohnhofgasslein

Eventually, all roads in the old city will converge on the lower-lying areas, the Barfüsserplatz (Bare-footer Square, named after the Franciscan monks who had a monastery here) or the market square in front of city hall, are rather garish red-colored house that has medieval roots but received its current skin in the late 19th century. This little bit of Basel can be bitten off in about an hour and a half. The Red Angel is not far from the market square and if it is too hot for coffee and Wähe, there is Moevenpick ice cream on the square at the eponymous restaurant.

Basel City Hall
Basel City Hall
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