Dearest Rachel –
Today I learned that, when you have a head cold (particularly one involving aural congestion), the ascent isn’t a big deal, but the descent is a painful process indeed.
Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Since there is neither sleep nor a meal before arriving is Basel, I had best send out my research for the first port of call while I wait for the commuter plane taking me there to arrive.
You might remember how, when the family would go cruising in Europe (it wasn’t so much of a thing in the Caribbean), Dad assigned everyone in the family to research one of the ports of call, and do a quick presentation on it at dinner the night before we were to arrive at that port. So, I’m taking it upon myself to put together a whole series of those sorts of little reports beforehand, and schedule them to be delivered to you before arriving at each destination along the way. I’ll do my best to make them more than just a cribbing of information from Wikipedia like we all used to do, but I can’t make any promises about some of them.
This first one is probably going to be sent out while I’m on the plane – or at best, during the layover in Amsterdam (which is going to be a whole other bit, since I managed to find Dad’s report on that city from a previous cruise, complete with editorializing – you know he didn’t take his research from the Wiki!), since I land there before the cruise, so there’s no dinner beforehand to use as the presentation time; not that I’m presenting to anyone in any event, at least, not physically. But that’s a topic for a separate letter. On to the edutainment.
Anyway, Basel. It’s a city on the northern border of Switzerland and, being virtually its own canton (combined with the municipalities of Riehen and Bettingen), is the smallest such member-state of the Helvetic Confederation. In fact, along with the surrounding rural area Basel-Land, Basel-City is considered a ‘half-canton’ in terms of representation in the Council of States (the Swiss equivalent of the Senate).
As of 2019, it was ranked (along with both Zürich and Geneva) as one of the ten most livable cities in the world by Mercer Asset Management. So it’s more than just a nice place to visit. Interestingly enough, this has apparently been a longstanding situation, as Basel was literally the only canton that was asked to join the Helvetic Confederation, as opposed to petitioning to be allowed in. As part of its acceptance, the canton included a provision in its charter of incorporation that it serve as a mediator state in cases where other cantons might come into conflict; essentially, it was the neutral state within a famously neutral country. You can see why the Swiss wanted Basel as a part of itself.
However, with that being said, it would seem that Basel-Land split off from Basel-City in 1833 due to conflicts within itself regarding representation; the rural folk were apparently annoyed with the urban dominance the city held over the state of Basel at the time, and declared independence from the city. In a way, it sounds like some of the rumblings that have gone on for some time here in Illinois – not that any of that is likely to ever happen here, no matter how much some may wish it. The city, by dint of population, will ever tend to wag the dog that is the state.
When comparing the size of a city to our own experience, I always used to use what we would consider to be ‘local’ municipalities to give a sense of proportions. Sure, the numbers are the numbers, but what do those numbers actually look like? It’s easier and more relatable to use towns in our area as a yardstick to compare against, like saying that Reykjavik is about the size of Rockford, for instance (granted, at the time I thought of Rockford as having a population of about 200,000 – turns out I overestimated by fifty thousand, but given that Reykjavik proper held 131,000 or so, I was closer than I knew with the comparison).
Basel is a little larger than either of them, coming in with a population of about 175,000, the third largest city in Switzerland behind Zürich (434K) and Geneva (204K). I have to admit, it’s a little strange to look at this country and realize it doesn’t have a single city that even clear half a million inhabitants, let alone a full million. Living as we do in the shadow of a city of nearly three million, these numbers seem a bit… underwhelming.
On the other hand, however many people there are, they are well packed in there, at 19K per square mile (which is more than four times the density of our own suburb), so there’s that.
For all that I think of Switzerland being surrounded by the Alps, and thus some sort of impregnable fortress, the city isn’t all that high up; it’s not even at 900 feet above sea level. We’re at a higher altitude at Camp Awana, if you can believe that.
I had contemplated finding out about one of your favorite authors, Johanna Spyri, but it turns out she was born and lived in rural Zürich, and the book you so prize of hers, Heidi, primarily takes place in Graubünden, in the southeast. Neither of these are particularly close. It’s not like trying to visit DisneyWorld while you’re visiting New York, but it’s not something I have time to find transit and toddle off to while I’m in town for the night.
Don’t know if I’m going to be able to get to any of them – and certainly not all of them – but the city has some forty museums, including the oldest publicly-accessible art museum in the world (founded in 1661), the Kunstmuseum. The local university is the oldest in Switzerland (dating from 1460), and the city has ‘at least’ 65 libraries (wonder how many are public, and why they aren’t consolidated a bit more).
The city’s largest industry appears to be in pharmaceuticals, with Novartis and Hoffman-LaRoche, among others, headquartered here. Indeed, the Roche Tower, at 584 feet tall, is the tallest building in the country. Basel also boasts the tallest tower in Switzerland, the St. Chrischona TV tower, standing 820 feet tall.
Given its location on the Rhine and the border with both Germany and France – indeed, the local public transit map has stops that take one into either country:
– it turns out that some 35% of the population is foreign-born; unusually high for Switzerland (or anywhere, to be honest).
Of course, this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the city’s history of independent thinkers and (relative) freedom of religion, but there’s only so much I should put together on a daily basis before the meal is served and the food gets cold, so I’m going to stop here. Again, I don’t know how much walking-about I’ll be able to do in my limited amount of time here, but hey, I’ll take a look around and get back to you about it.
My impressions will come later; talk to you then.