Observations from Basel: Introduction

I would like to do a regular feature on living in Basel, where I have spent the last eight years of my life and can’t help but notice the quirks that set life here apart from life anywhere else. A lot of these observations could apply to Switzerland overall, or at least Swiss-German speaking regions. Others are distinctly Basel. And taken together, they help create the amazing atmosphere of this charming city.

But to get started it may be useful to describe the basics of the city, to introduce Basel to those of you who may have never heard of it or never had the opportunity to visit.

Basel SBB: Swiss and French rail station (there is also a German station) advertising Art Basel outside

Basel is the third largest city in Switzerland, after Zurich and Geneva, with a population of about 170,000. No, that’s not a typo. However, many could argue with this estimate, as the Basel agglomeration count is actually 537,100 (these statistics are from 2014) and when people discuss the population of Basel, you can get a number anywhere between these two figures, depending what you consider to be Basel. Another factor is the daytime population, which swells substantially. This is because Basel lies right at the point where the borders of Germany, France, and Switzerland meet. As such, there are a lot of clever people who choose to live at the much lower costs of Germany or France while working for the much higher salaries offered in Basel.

Crowds gathering on the ancient Mittlere Brücke (opened in 1226) for yet another outdoor event

Being so close to both these countries, a lot of influence from Germany and especially France can be found here. I will go into more detail in future posts, but as an example: the official language of Basel is (Swiss) German, but the local dialect includes a lot of French words, often with comical pronunciations. A bike is called a velo, rather than Fahrrad, and (very rare in Switzerland) you may receive something “gratis” – but if you don’t pronounce the “s” at the end you may get funny looks.

Switzerland is divided into twenty-six cantons and the canton of Basel was split into two some time ago, in 1833, becoming Basel-Stadt (Basel City) and Basel-Landschaft (Basel Country – often shortened to “Basel-Land”). The canton of Basel-Stadt is the smallest in Switzerland and includes three municipalities. The Rhine river divides the city of Basel into Big Basel (Gross Basel) and Little Basel (Klein Basel).

St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche) in Basel with its ever changing gardens

Despite being small both geographically and population-wise, it has the heart of a much larger city. There is always something going on: fairs, concerts, plays, museum exhibitions (Basel has more than 40 museums) and big annual events like Art Basel, Basel Tattoo, and Baselworld, as well as sporting events, with a good variety of places to eat and party. Despite that, most part of the city are very quiet after the day workers have gone home for the night or weekend – excepting the old town and Klein Basel areas, it is rare to pass another person on the street late at night unless something really big is happening.

This little introduction has been quite straightforward but I look forward to writing some of the funnier and stranger aspects of my observations of Basel beginning next week!

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