It’s festive o’clock in Basel

Sudha Pillai | Updated on: Dec 20, 2019
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Basel, Switzerland’s city of museums and art, transforms into one big traditional Christmas celebration with themed exhibitions, wishing trees and an endless flow of mulled wine

The cobbled streets of the Spice Alleys of Nadleberg in the Old Town of Basel, Switzerland, are likely just a few inches wider than the arm span of an Amitabh Bachchan. Halfway down the winding lane is door number 31. The Hoosesagg Museum — all of 10 sqft and in business since 1995 — is a display case that makes up the top half of the building’s main door.

Aeons ago, the two-storeyed house belonged to the first midwife of Basel, who had to seek permission from three wise men at the Town Hall every time she had to deliver a baby. In later years, people thronged to see the “house of the midwife”.

Fed up with the droves of curious tourists at her doorstep, the current owner, Dagmar Vergeat and her husband decided to turn the glass front door into a display space for small items. The exhibits change every month, and outsiders too are welcome to host their own exhibition for free, but under one condition: the exhibits should fit in a Swiss trouser pocket — that is, around 30 small items.

The exhibitions range in theme from history to art, The Beatles, Fiat, Pokemon, Hydrometers and many others. In December, of course, the theme is always ‘Christmas’.

Art is everywhere

Home to 1.6 lakh people, the 2,000-year-old city of Basel is both ancient and contemporary. The city was initially famous for book printing, paper production, and silk weaving and dyeing. Today it is renowned for its pharmaceutical and chemical companies. And art.

‘Switzerland’s capital of culture’ is chock-a-block with no fewer than 40 museums — from Anatomisches Museum der Universitat Basel (exhibits include a skeleton from 1543) to Cartoon Museum (dedicated to satirical art), and Basler Papiermuhle (housed in a medieval paper mill, it is all about handmade paper and calligraphy). The Kunstmuseum, a heritage structure, boasts 4,000 paintings, sculptures, videos, and installation art, as also 300,000 drawings and prints, many centuries-old.

However, the run-up to the festive season always sees Basel turn into the most traditional Christmas city in Switzerland.

The Spielzeug Welten Museum or Toy Museum, for instance, is a major attraction with its collection of over 6,000 teddy bears, dolls and dollhouses. During Christmas, it transforms into a fairyland, with a spectacular nativity scene for its window display, which can make the child in you jump with Christmassy joy.

The city’s Marionetten Theatre (puppet theatre) features special Christmas performances for adults and children.

However, it is the Theatre Basel’s Advent Calendar (Dec 1–23) that is a must-witness local Christmas tradition. Dating back to the mid-19th century, Advent calendars feature paper doors, one for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Each ‘door’ is opened on that day to reveal either an image, a Bible verse, or even a piece of chocolate. Theatre Basel’s Advent calendar opens its ‘doors’ at 4.30 pm every day to reveal short thrilling performances. Entry is free.

Season to shop

Among several iconic Christmas markets in Basel is the Münsterplatz, held in front of the majestic Munster or Basel Cathedral dating back to 1000 AD. One can climb up the spire of the cathedral for a spectacular view of the Rhine and Basel beyond. Gospel Night at the cathedral is one of the fixtures in the Basel Christmas calendar.

The market is like a massive fair, marked by copious amounts of food, fun and laughter; a range of toys, clothes and other goods are displayed for sale in temporary wooden chalets. The two famous Christmas market snacks are raclette and chäsbängel (a baguette filled with fondue). The markets are usually open from November 26 to December 23.

Wishes of hope and love

During Christmas, Basel is dotted with ‘Wishing trees’ in public squares, shopfronts, museums and even outside homes. People can write their wishes, hopes and dreams on a piece of paper and hang it from the trees. I saw many wishes for ‘world peace’, apart from shoes, bags and ‘love’. The requests come in all sizes and languages.

As for the Basel Wish Book at the 16th-century Rathaus or Town Hall in the Marktplatz, from November 28 to January 2, residents and visitors alike can fill it with their private thoughts and wish-lists for Santa Claus.

Merry ferry

A ride on the Rhine River, which runs through Basel, in a festively dressed-up ferry is a unique experience.

There are four ferries attached to an overhead cable and propelled by the current in the river. You can book a boat for a Christmas party, or simply sail along the river while contemplating the meaning of Christmas, even as distant sounds of carol singing whisper in your ear.

Sudha Pillai is a Bengaluru-based writer

Travel log

Published on December 20, 2019

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