A Corner on Amity on the Continent

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

The monument is like a symbol of the Space Age, pointing far out into other galaxies.

But it symbolizes something of more immediate urgency right here on planet earth in this troubled year of 1986.

The rocket-shaped pylon marks the Dreilaendereck, the Three Countries Corner, a small promontory in the Rhine River where the borders of France, West Germany and Switzerland meet in a harmony expressed by daily cultural, commercial and people-to-people relationships.


Three Countries Corner Monument is an exclamation point to all the reasons why Basel awaits discovery as one of the most rewarding destinations in Europe, much more than just the gateway city it has become for most travelers heading toward the internationally famed vacationlands of Switzerland.

Special interest travelers have been converging on the fairs and exhibition halls of Basel ever since the year 1471, when the city received an Imperial Patent to hold fairs; the Basel Autumn Fair has been held continuously since that year.

Fair Weather

More than 40 fairs and exhibitions have been scheduled for 1986, starting with the International Dog Show in January, the Coin Fair in February and continuing through such autumn highlights as the Basel Wine Fair Oct. 25-Nov. 3.

The European Clock, Watch and Jewelry Fair held April 17-24 displayed everything from the newest designs and technologies in wristwatches to classic clocks, gold, silver, pearl and platinum jewelry.

Coming June 12-17 is the International Fair of 20th-Century Art, showcasing more than 300 exhibiors from 20 countries. Last year 53,614 admission tickets were sold to the art fair and there were more than 1 million visitors to all the 1985 fairs and exhibitions.

Once visitors stop here for any reason, instead of just passing through the city they quickly discover many persuasions to stay longer or to return. These include:

Magnificent restorations of the old town; pedestrian walking areas on both sides of the Rhine; 27 museums with some of the great art collections of Europe; at least a thousand concerts, ballets and operatic performances every year; hotels in a wide range of prices.

Center of Sports

Restaurants of international standard are tucked into old guild halls; it’s a center of sports from the playing fields and parks of the city to the waters of the Rhine and the slopes of the nearby mountain ranges; an intellectual climate that brings together many world cultures in a sharing of ideas.

More than a thousand years before the first fair was held, Basel on the Rhine was at a crossroads of the Celtic world. The Roman Empire founded a town here in 44 BC, and the hill on which the cathedral stands was one of its major fortifications.

In AD 1226 the ruling bishop mortgaged the church’s treasure to build the first permanent bridge across the Rhine between Constance and the North Sea; collection of tolls made the town prosperous.

The Roman Catholic Church Council began meeting here in 1431, and the gatherings of learned churchmen led to the founding of the University of Basel in 1460; it is considered Switzerland’s oldest and most prestigious. Basel became the center of humanism and the art of printing, the home of such intellectuals as Erasmus of Rotterdam.

When the guilds took control of the government from the bishops, the first steps were taken toward recognition of the special independence of the Swiss Confederation in 1648. German philosopher Karl Jaspers once wrote of Basel: “Here I feel I am a free man.”

A Fascinating Aspect

The Jewish community and heritage in Basel presents one of the city’s most fascinating aspects. The community dates to the beginning of the 13th Century. Jewish businessmen helped to finance the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake of 1356. By the 16th Century Basel was a printing center for Hebrew books.

Noted Zionist, author and journalist Theodore Herzl brought Jewish leaders from all over Europe to Basel in 1897 for the first Zionist Congress.

Many Zionist congresses have been held here since then, and a street in Basel is named after Herzl. The Jewish Museum of Switzerland here has exhibits of Jewish history, culture and everyday life.

We started our city tour aboard one of the tourist office buses that depart mornings and afternoons from in front of the major hotels.

It gave us an overview of the city on both sides of the Rhine, bringing its commercial life and chemical industries into perspective with the Old Town and adding to the cosmopolitan flavor.

Every morning 17,000 people commute to offices and industrial plants in Basel from France and West Germany. With a population of about 200,000 in its canton area, the city is proud of its “suburbs” in three countries.

A Swiss ‘Seaport’

Visitors have the option of arriving at the Swiss, French or German railroad stations, at the international airport served by airlines from many nations and by highways reaching out to all of Europe.

Basel also likes to consider itself Switzerland’s “only seaport,” one that receives passenger and barge traffic all the way from Rotterdam on the North Sea. We arrived this time on the KD Rhine Line cruise ship Italia from Duesseldorf in West Germany and left by rental car for Alsace-Lorraine in France.

Restoration of the 16th -Century town hall has been completed, and it rises above the old Market Square. Soon after leaving the square we were walking around the modern Bank for International Settlements Tower, a monetary center for 29 nations.

From business streets in the middle of town it was just a step into the island of greenery that shelters a zoo for more than 4,000 animals. A banker who commutes daily from France had his children in the park riding an elephant during the noon hour.

Town squares that were used for parking lots when we first visited Basel more than a dozen years ago are pedestrian malls of sidewalk cafes and elegant shop windows. One is still called Barfuesserplatz, the plaza of the barefoot in memory of the Franciscan monks who once walked across it with bare feet to emphasize the simplicity of their life style. The petro-chemical executives at the sidewalk table next to ours were definitely wearing shoes.

The former Franciscan Barfuesser church reopened five years ago as a museum with a collection of art from antiquity to the 17th Century.

Relic of Middle Ages

Three city gates of the Middle Ages are still standing. The most famous is the Spalentor, crowned with a pointed turret and decorated with remarkably preserved sculptures. It leads right into the Latin Quarter of the university district, as well as to the oldest pub in town, the late-Gothic Gasthof Zum Goldenen Sternen, the guest house of golden stars, built between 1500 and 1570.

Crown jewel of Basel’s many museums is the Museum of Fine Arts, where more than 3,000 paintings constitute one of the finest art collections in the world. Nearly all of the early works of Holbein are here. Rodin is well represented and Picasso has a hall all to himself. A story that says much about Basel happened in 1967 when the citizens of Basel demanded a referendum so that they could vote funds for the purchase of two more Picasso masterpieces.

For another Basel contrast, the new Stadttheater in the heart of the old city has been described as the most modern theater in Europe. The automated Fastnacht Fountain, the Fountain of Carnival Night, was created in the terraced plaza by famed sculptor Tinguely; it could be a stage setting for a night of theater with Ray Bradbury.

If you can ever combine Basel with a ski trip to Switzerland, the Crazy Days of the January carnival and its three mythological characters leading parades and dancing in the streets are guaranteed to delay your first schuss down the slopes.

Basel was predictably one of the first European cities to send high school-age students to the United States as part of the American Field Service exchange program. About 26 years ago Lucien Vallet came from Basel to spend his junior year at Mira Costa High School in our Manhattan Beach community of the Los Angeles South Bay area.

Now he holds a responsible position in the chemical industry of Basel and is also a recognized artist with a camera preparing for a new exhibition. His photos set the mood for our view from the Cathedral Terrace, from where the cityscape reaches out to a horizon enclosed by the crests of the Black Forest and the Jura Mountains.

A Full Year

We had dinner together in the old Guild Hall almost directly across the walking street from his apartment and studio; the restaurant is the Schlusselzunft, one of the best known in Basel.

With such a full year of fairs, exhibitions and carnivals, it’s always wise to make reservations at a hotel or inn before coming to Basel. As often happens, we neglected to follow our own advice. But after disembarking from our cruise ship and making phone calls through the helpful dockside agent, we were able to find a cancellation at the gracious Hotel Victoria in the heart of the city. Our double with breakfasts was about $85.

For complete information about Basel and accommodations in all price ranges, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108, phone (415) 362-2260.