Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Sweet Basel

This polished Swiss city has a distinctly down-to-earth flavour

At first, I could only hear the faint tinkle of a bell. Then suddenly, the mist cleared to reveal soft green grass beneath my feet and a black-and-white creature looking back at me placidly. I was face to face not just with a cow, but with a nice, clean Swiss specimen, from whence come all good things chocolate and cheese.

My bovine epiphany occurred a few miles from the city of Basel, and there was no more appropriate welcome than the sight of that cow in the countryside. Though such a pastoral scene initially seemed at odds with the image of a well-heeled commercial capital, I found myself thinking about it often during my visit. For beneath its slick surface, Basel is really a small town closely tied to the old ways of the land.

The waters of the Rhine cleave Basel in two with an elegant sweep, rolling slowly past a skyline that mixes medieval and modern. Standing at the river's edge, in one direction you can see the Gothic spires of the imposing Münster cathedral, erected in 1356. In the other direction loom the decidedly more recent smokestacks and office towers of a booming pharmaceutical industry.

Building on a silk-dyeing trade that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, Basel has become an important chemical centre. It's now home to multinationals, as well as a big names in the banking sector. While financial success has ensured its popularity as a destination for conventions, it has also led to a reputation for conventionality. With a little digging, however, visitors will find a unique charm in Basel's traditional roots.

History runs deep here: the Romans founded the city in 44 BC, it was a Celtic community in the first century and was later occupied by the Huns. Though it suffered earthquakes and the ravages of the Plague, it continued to flourish, its situation on the Rhine making it a nucleus for trade and knowledge. Basel was the site of the country's first university and became a centre for humanism during the Renaissance. It counts scholars like Erasmus and Nietzsche among its illustrious residents past.

Current-day Basel is actually the union of settlements on either side of the river. Brought together in the 14th century, Grossbasel has remained the seat of politics and culture, while Kleinbasel is known for a more edgy, bohemian vibes; a faint rivalry still simmers between them. Both parts of town are a jumble of genteel red sandstone facades, beautiful Baroque buildings and rustic markets. In Grossbasel's central square, the Marktplatz, under the watchful hands of an ornate town-hall clock, merchants sell seasonal produce, flowers and freshly roasted chestnuts in the same spot that the medieval guilds once hawked their merchandise.

Local makes good
Nestled at the extreme northern tip of Switzerland, this German-speaking city benefits from an enviable geographic position, only three kilometres from both France and Germany's Black Forest. International commutes are so common that residents barely blink at border crossings. For visitors, it provides a great gateway to further European explorations (just remember to change your francs into euros first!).

The expression "think local" resonates deeply in Switzerland. It's a small country to begin with (at least by North American standards), so I was surprised to discover to what degree a regional mentality exists within its 26 cantons, each of which is independently proud of its identity and its products. In no domain is this more apparent than in Swiss kitchens. Local ingredients are the real inspiration behind most upscale menus: cheese and milk products from nearby dairies, and game from ancestral hunting grounds.

As a result, although Basel's top tables see a lot of expense-account action, much of the fare remains refreshingly rootsy. The cuisine itself takes pointers from neighbouring heavyweights — France in particular — but many chefs would consider produce from more than a few miles away to be a frivolous import.

The best of Basel can be sampled at Restaurant zur Schuhmachernzunft (6 Hutgasse; tel: 011-41-61-261-2091; Even well-travelled foodies will be enchanted by the intimate atmosphere and honest food — cabbage, cranberries, venison, Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese with prunes and white boar bunderfleisch are accented by wines privately obtained from local vineyards (among them, an oaky white Johannisberg de Chamonson is worth sampling and smuggling). Regal owner Maja Schneiter — a rare female restauranteur — will specify that the rose-petal jelly and rosehip mousse aren't just made from Swiss roses, they were picked by her mother from bushes near the local church.

This same down-to-earth philosophy applies at casual eateries. One of my favourites was the Harmonie Tavern (71 Petersgraben; tel: 011-41-61-261-0718;, a charming 1807 brasserie. Roll up your shirtsleeves, slide into a bench and observe tables of serious-faced patrons leaning forward intently as though discussing the intricacies of banking reform — or perhaps just making sure their watches are synchronized. Harmonie's menu is in German only, but it's hard to go wrong if you appreciate the fundamentals of human life: beer and meat. Munch on bauernspeck (doublesmoked bacon), münster mit kümmel (cheese with caraway), rostï (potato pancakes) or ochsenmaulsalat (surprisingly delicious, even when I found out it meant ox-mouth salad).

Bread and butter
The downtown area is a lacework of wide boulevards and twisting laneways, best explored on foot for the surprises that lie behind the many tiny storefront windows. The seven streets radiating from the Marktplatz contain a mixture of old specialty shops and ritzy new fashion boutiques, while above geraniums bend their bright blooms from expertly groomed window boxes. A charming thoroughfare called Pfeffergässlein ("Pepper Lane"), offers a myriad of displays: whimsical hats at the milliner's, handcrafted ornaments at Johann Wanner's Christmas shop, gleaming bottles in a well-stocked wine emporium, mechanical scissor blades beckoning from an ancient knife-sharpening spot.

The scent of fresh baking emanates from Andreasplatz, a tiny courtyard where shuttered houses have settled at odd angles, as though leaning into each other for support over the centuries. In one of these vine-covered abodes I discovered Bio Andreas (14 Andreasplatz; tel: 011-41-61-261-8486), an organic bakery where the wood stove is kept aflame 24 hours a day. Flour is milled manually in the basement and baskets of bread are delivered on foot. Inside this low-ceilinged rabbit warren of rooms, master baker Roland Heusler darts about with contained energy, his nose constantly sniffing the golden brownness of the next batch of pastries. Rising at five in the morning, he devotes 14 hours each day to overseeing the production of irresistibles like linzertorte with currant marmalade, almond macaroons and onion bread.

Community Spirits
Walk the circumference of any mountain in northern Switzerland, and you're likely to see at least one hillside devoted to a vineyard. The tradition of viticulture goes back 1200 years in the Basel area, and locals still take their liquid assets seriously. The surrounding countryside provides many opportunities for winery tours — Alsace is only a short drive away — but there are also spots within city limits to sample homegrown flavours.

The toney residential suburb of Riehen, a 20-minute tram ride from the centre of town, takes an almost socialist approach to winemaking. At the Schlipfer co-op (1 Wettsteinstrasse; tel: 011-41-61-645-9515), neighbourhood folk have a stake in everything from grape cultivation — a dark smudge of property on Trüllinger Hill in the distance — to the pristine facilities where the wine is aged, bottled and sold. This "by the people, for the people" attitude instantly had me fantasizing about putting a roast in the oven, then strolling down the block to pick up a bottle that was rightfully mine! Instead, I contented myself with a public winetasting, which took place in a cosy cellar accompanied by exquisite baked goods prepared by the manager's wife.

Across town in the colourful Gundeli district, another volunteer association devotes itself to heady pursuits, brewing beer according to age-old techniques. Unser Bier (16 Laufenstrasse; tel: 011-41-61-338-8383) is a community brasserie, where members have access to equipment and are encouraged to invent their own recipes and design their own labels. Quality is a top priority — this is Switzerland after all — meaning that only organic barley and hops find their way into the five selections on tap, ranging from a musky wheat beer to a light pale ale. A pint, combined with an engaging atmosphere and diverse clientele, was all the inspiration I needed to drink to local pride.

Art and soul
Basel's community consciousness isn't limited to the earthly pleasures of food and drink. The city established its public art collection a remarkable 300 years ago, and now boasts more than 30 museums. The star attraction among them is the Beyeler Foundation (77 Baselstrasse, Riehen; tel: 011-41-61-645-9700;, a stunning collection of modern works put together by an intriguing Baseler.

As a lad in the 1940s, Ernst Beyeler bought his first canvas with a pay cheque from his job at a local print shop. From then on, he had a knack for being there at key moments in contemporary art history. His personal enthusiasm shines through in a collection that traces beauty and form across chronologies and continents. Klee, Rothko, Giacometti and Kandinsky, not to mention Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso, share space with works culled from Africa and Oceania. Through June 2004, the Beyeler pays homage to the wonky works of Francis Bacon, while a show exploring the relationship between Calder and Mir— runs into the fall.

The gallery's design, by architect Renzo Piano, is futuristic and organic. Retractable panels in glass ceilings diffuse the sun's rays, while exterior ponds reflect onto large pieces such as Monet's watery Bassin aux nymphéas. A natural extension of the landscape, the Beyeler seems to sum up Basel's simple spirit, a city that even in its most modern moments remains timelessly in touch with its roots.


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