You need a break. I need a break. We all want to get away, to somewhere clean and quiet (but not too quiet) where the bars and restaurants are nice and busy (but not too busy) and public transport runs like clockwork – a bustling, attractive city that’s safe and friendly, yet still feels full of life.
Right now I doubt there’s any city on Earth quite like that (and even if there was, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to go there), but earlier this month I was somewhere a lot like it, and when the world recovers – and it will recover – I’ll be going back again. That place is Basel, the first foreign city I got to know, and the last place I went to before Europe went into lockdown.
I first went to Basel when I was 19, on an Interrailing trip with my first girlfriend. After a few sleepless nights on filthy night trains she went down with nasty tummy bug, so we headed for the only place where we could be sure of a warm welcome and a comfy bed. A friend of ours was housesitting for a Swiss family in a place I’d never heard of, a place called Basel.
I never knew you could fall in love with a city, but I fell in love with Basel. It was imposing but compact and so easy to navigate, criss-crossed by clanking trams. It had all the buzz of a big city but there were green fields all around. The Rhine flowed through the heart of town, giving the city a strange energy quite out of keeping with its finite size. The crossroads of medieval Europe, it was still a busy thoroughfare, a place of arrival and departure. Huge barges chugged past, bound for France and Germany, and beyond.
There was lots to see and do but it seemed as if we were the only sightseers (most tourists bypass Basel and head straight through to holiday hotspots like Lucerne). We spent an idyllic, idle week here before setting off in search of more intrepid places – which turned out to be a lot less fun. I’ve been back a few times since, but always on business and never for more than a day or two. This time I wanted to rediscover the city I’d forsaken all those years ago. Maybe I might meet the person I used to be along the way?
It didn’t work out quite that way. When I arrived everything was still open but the city was already emptying out. Back in Britain the Government advice was still business as usual, so I decided to stick around. I wandered round and found a few old haunts, but they didn’t really seem the same. Basel hadn’t changed much. The main thing that had changed was me.
But that’s quite enough teenage nostalgia. It was that week in Basel which made me want to be a travel writer and, half a lifetime later, having reported from countless foreign cities, I realised what makes Basel so special. With all the cultural trappings of a state capital, and all the informality of a market town, it’s a pocket metropolis, a city that’s both great and small.
Fine art is the biggest draw. Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair, has been an annual highlight for the last 50 years, and there are all sorts of wonderful artworks to see throughout the year. The Kunstmuseum houses a stunning array of old and modern masters, but the Fondation Beyeler is the greatest thrill. It’s hidden away in leafy parkland on the edge of town, in a sublime gallery designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Ernst Beyeler was a local art dealer who amassed an amazing art collection and built this serene hideaway in which to house it. The garden restaurant is a lovely spot for lunch. Afterwards, if you’re feeling energetic, you can walk through woods and fields, and into Germany, to visit the groovy Vitra Design Museum.
Just a few miles away you can also walk across another border, into France, and even if you never set foot in either country the proximity of those two frontiers has a big effect on Basel. It gives the city an international ambience which belies its modest dimensions. You’d never know that barely 200,000 folk live here. Outside the EU but inside Schengen, with an airport in France, a train station in Germany and a multilingual population, it’ll make a fitting cultural capital for the new Europe, once the borders reopen.
Right now this is just a dream, but when that day comes I can recommend two fabulous places to eat, and two fantastic places to stay. The Volskhaus is a robust old beer hall, now a classy brasserie, restored and renovated by local starchitects Herzog & de Meuron. It’s in Kleinbasel, which used to be the Red Light District – now the trendiest part of town. For a more intimate meal, head for Au Violon, a handsome renaissance building on a hilltop in the medieval Altstadt (it used to be a prison, but don’t let that put you off). The food is even better than the Volkshaus – classic French cuisine, with some stunning wines (even the vin de table is delicious).
I usually stay at Hotel Krafft, a plain but stylish four star on the waterfront, but if someone else is paying I prefer Les Trois Rois, one of Europe’s oldest grand hotels. Goethe, Casanova, Napoleon, Wellington and Bonnie Prince Charlie all stayed here (though not at the same time) but for somewhere so illustrious it’s actually pleasantly understated. The sense of history is unique, but the best thing is the riverside location. Hans Christian Andersen sat up all night to watch this ‘restless river,’ John Ruskin adored ‘the sweep of the water under the window’ and Dickens admired ‘the crowded reflections of the town lights in the dark water.’ Only a week ago I sat and marvelled at the same timeless view. I don’t know when I’ll be back. But when Europe is open for business again, I know it’s the first place I’ll return to.
Where will you travel when this is all over? Please leave your comments below.