The Basel Museum Crawl

Published in Al Nawras, inflight magazine for Air Arabia, May 2016 issue.

With more than 40 museums and galleries, the Swiss city offers a delight for the curious mind. From the conventional to the quirky, Basel seems to have it all.

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Perched at the crux of France, Germany and Switzerland, the city of Basel has been the cornerstone for a fusion of cultures for centuries now. As one of the oldest cities in Switzerland, Basel’s numerous museums hold the key to a treasure trove of European heritage – from the Celts who first inhabited the banks of the Rhine in the 5th century BC, to the Romans who christened the city Basilea in 374 AD to the prosperous art, culture and transport hub we know know today. A day-long museum crawl attempts to uncover Basel’s legacy through art, music and folklore.

The Basel Kuntsmuseum (St. Alban-Graben 16, 4051 Basel, Switzerland) is a great place to start, simply because you’ll find yourself amidst the largest and oldest public art collections in the world.

It became a municipally owned museum in 1661, when Basilius Amerbach, a prominent citizen of Basel sold his private collection to the city. The museum has since housed art dating back to the 15th century, such as early drawings of the river Rhine which offer a rare insight into medieval society and culture in the region.

Apart from local and regional works, the Basel Kuntsmuseum houses original artwork from some of the biggest names in history –  from Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso and Warhol- under the same roof.

After a $112 million renovation project, the Basel Kuntsmusum opens this April with a massive expansion and three venues within the area, aiming to offer an immersive experience for the visitor.

A brisk, ten-minute walk from here along the cobblestoned backstreets will lead you uphill, into a former prison cell that currently houses the iconic Basel Museum of Music (Im Lohnhof 9, 4051 Basel, Switzerland). The fact that this medieval building will celebrate its 1000th birthday soon, is just part of the charm.

In tracing the timeline of Basel, the museum transports you into various points in the city’s history to experience the evolution of music, first hand. More than 650 instruments spanning five centuries are exhibited here and can be experienced acoustically, for an unforgettable musical journey.

Linked closely with Basel’s musical history, is the local folklore of three symbolic figures – the Wilder Mann (the savage man), Leu (the lion) and Vogel Gryff (the griffin), who were meant to guard the honor societies of Kleinbasel (the province on the western bank of the Rhine). To this date, an annual procession takes place every January, to commemorate this tradition with marching bands and celebrations along the river.

From the 16th century onwards, this tradition, referred to as the Vogel Gryff saw the use of many types of brass instruments, drums and fanfare trumpets for the first time- some of which are carefully preserved and displayed at the museum today.

Also on display are several historical keyboard instruments that were made, or played in Basel. Curiously shaped medieval-age grand pianos, ancient baroque guitars and foot-long trumpets make for a fascinating journey of Europe’s musical history.

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Downhill from the Lohnhof building, is the Barfüsserkirche Museum (Barfüsserpl. 4, 4001 Basel, Switzerland), located inside the Barfüsser Church which was renovated in 1298, after a fire.

With an exhaustive record of Upper Rhine’s cultural history, the permanent exhibition offers original objects documenting handicraft traditions and everyday culture from Basel’s celebrated past.

Some of the most striking features of the museum exhibit are the Basel Cathedral treasure and original fragments of Basel’s dance of death or Danse Macabre, a series of murals from the 15th century, depicting the universality of death.

If the mood is somewhat morbid at this point, take a quick detour to the near-by  Puppenhausmuseum Basel (Steinenvorstadt 1, 4051 Basel, Switzerland) for a whirlwind tour of the quirky collection of dolls, miniatures and dollhouses from the turn of the 19th century.

The museum showcases unique dollhouses from the region, which are considered pieces of art for their ingenuity, craftsmanship and accuracy to scale. Originally, these dollhouses were never meant to be used for play, but commissioned by influential families to demonstrate prestige and social standing.

Some of the handmade dolls displayed here are made from clay, wood and plant fibers, which were originally used as cult objects or healing symbols. When commercial production of dolls began in the 15th century, neighboring Germany was considered to be its birthplace. Today, the museum exhibits both, traditional as well as contemporary doll-making traditions from the region and around the world.

A good way to wrap up the museum crawl is a visit to the Clock and Watch Collection, housed in the Museum of Domestic Culture (‪Elisabethenstrasse 27 / 29, Basel, Switzerland). A treat for watch aficionados, the collection offers a glimpse into the workings of unique sun dials, mechanical clocks and watches from private collections of traditional time-keepers and hobbyists from across the country.

A room at the museum is dedicated exclusively to Basel’s own watch-makers, who by 1780 had earned a reputation for their precision and skill.

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Where to stay in Basel:
The Passage Basel (Steinengraben 51, 4051 Basel)
Location is key for this contemporary styled hotel. Its proximity to the Basel SSB train terminal makes it accessible, while its 4 star amenities make it a comfortable stay.

Where to eat:
Lowenzorn (Gemsberg 2–4, Basel, Switzerland).
Try traditional Swiss cuisine, especially the sumptuous Kalbsläberli und Rösti (veal liver with grated, fried potatoes) and classic cheese fondue. You wont find an English menu here but the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly (and multilingual).

Restaurant Zum Alten Stokli (Barfüsserpl. 1, Basel, Switzerland)
Located at the head of a bustling stretch of pubs and restaurants, Stockli offers great ambience for a night out.

Confiserie Schiesser (Marketplatz 19, Basel)
Running since 1870, this quaint bakery offers light bites, homemade chocolate and unforgettable signature treats.

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