Basel is the city that subverts everything that is expected of Switzerland. The classic imagery of tranquil alpine villages, snow-covered peaks and herds of competition cows is as far away as there is from this city that surprises in every respect. The first surprise is the climate: Basel, although located in the north-west of Switzerland, in a tongue of land between France and Germany, which are only a few kilometers from the city center, enjoys a Mediterranean climate and an average of 300 days of sunshine per year. The second surprise is the result of the city’s happy climate: Basel is a perfect city for outdoor life, ideal for those who love sports, culture and entertainment. It is no coincidence that it is full of festivals, has a carnival in early March – so beautiful, old and exciting to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that involves the whole city for days and days and has always been a destination for art lovers during Art Basel.
The true outdoor passion of the people of Basel, however, is the most surprising reality of this city: swimming in the Rhine! Yes, Basel is a seaside town and its citizens do not miss the opportunity, in the summer, swimming in the Rhine: a river that in that stretch has very clean waters (we are still in Switzerland) and safe. Swimming in the Rhine is a cross-cutting passion in Basel. Sitting comfortably on one of the many benches or steps on the riverbank, you will see swimmers, families with children, couples holding hands and groups of elderly ladies chatting amiably embraced by their “wickelfisch” floating on the waters.
The wickelfisch is the cool object that will make you the perfect, albeit temporary, inhabitants of Basel: it is a waterproof bag in the shape of a fish in which you can store and keep perfectly dry your clothes and your personal belongings. Once folded up, the wickelfisch blocks the air inside it and becomes a float that you can wear on your shoulder and use during your bathing on the Rhine to stay afloat and be carried comfortably by the current without having to swim.
In Basel it is not difficult to see, on working days, employees in suits and ties or elegant ladies walking through the center and that, at lunch break on the banks of the river (or using the many booths for the change that are on the banks), undress, put their clothes, shoes, wallet, purse, an indispensable towel and mobile phone in their wickelfisch and take a relaxing bath or invigorating in the river, following the course. Then, satisfied, they get out of the water, rinse using one of the many public outdoor showers, dry, dress and return to work.
Alternatively, they can enjoy the landscape while eating a sandwich and sipping a drink in one of the many bars along the river: evolved versions of our kiosks that welcome at their tables anyone who has the pleasure of a convivial moment outdoors.
The best way to visit Basel in summer and late spring is by river. All you have to do is get a wickelfisch (you can easily find them in different sizes and colours in museums, clubs and souvenir shops) and start your tour of the city from the Tinguely Museum.
Jean Tinguely is a contemporary artist who has worked for many years in Basel, his chosen city, spokesman for the “New Realism” movement and author of numerous dynamic sculptures in which objects of everyday life acquire a new aesthetic significance. His dynamic sculptures are particularly fascinating: real animated “machines” that, among noises and movements, occupy the physical and sound space. Inside the museum you will find the largest collection of his works, always fun, able to attract the attention of children (such as the car of Formula 1, literally exploded in its smallest details) and full of charm. From the museum, which is “upstream” from the centre of Basel, you can swim to the heart of the city with your wickelfisch, while admiring from a new perspective in the middle of the river the villas in the green along the river, the half-timbered houses, the palaces of the Old Town and the Cathedral.
Once in the city centre, take advantage of the steps just after the Mittlere Brücke, Basel’s oldest bridge dating from 1226, to get back to the shore, dry and dress, reach the opposite bank and visit the Old Town: one of the best-preserved historic centres in Europe, with the red sandstone cathedral with its two high towers, the Palazzo del Municipio, also in surprising red stone and finely decorated with frescoes, overlooking the lively Marktplatz, the lively market square where you can buy local products or treat yourself to a snack.
After the Old Town, you’re back in the water! And you can float, or swim if you feel sporty, always following the river current, beyond the Mittlere Brücke, admiring the landscape of the city that, as you move away from the old town, is characterized by increasingly modern architectural styles and leaves the room, towards the end of the swim, to real bathing establishments! Yes, Basel has “baths” like any other self-respecting Riviera, where you can sunbathe, relax under the umbrella and, if you feel brave, dive from the springboard into the deepest waters of the river.
During your river trip you will discover another unique feature of Basel: the most ecological ferries in the world! These are 4 large open boats that connect the two sides of the Rhine, carrying dozens of people each time, driven only by the power of the river current.
They are not only a tourist attraction that offers a fascinating excursion on the river but, from April to October, a real means of transport used daily by the locals.
The limit of the bathing water marks the end of one of the most curious and original visits that you will happen to make: you will be not far from the river port of the city, from where large cruise ships depart along the river to its mouth in the North Sea, crossing much of continental Europe until it flows, with a large delta in the Netherlands, directly into the North Sea.