The Church of Saint Elizabeth is an unexpected sight presenting itself before you even got into the old town. Its bell tower rises over the squat body of the building and stands out among the grey and anonymous buildings of the residential area surrounding the train station. The inside is solid and severe as it is suits a church, but not as imposing as in other European countries. On the right, after entering the church, a sign points to the staircase for the tower, with a kind request of putting threes francs in a box for climbing to the top.
While going upstairs it gets tighter and tighter. Finally you reach the blue sky, the steeples cross the landscape over the bland industrial area. It doesn’t look like Basel at all. It doesn’t feel like being on the rooftop of one of Switzerland’s most charming towns. But then you spot the lofty and modern façade of the Reformed Church interrupting the series of uncharacteristic buildings. And you spot the the bride red steeples of the Cathedral, and you hear the constant clatter of the trams, which like colourful snakes cross the town from any corner.
Basel, firmly clung to the German border, offers itself like this. Layered. From the top the uniform and impervious shell. Inside an endless string of eccentric architectures shaping the city’s character, teased by fountains and Gothic churches. Over the river stretch the solid bridges constantly cluttered with vehicles, pedestrians and trams. Beyond the Rhine lies the Small Basel (Kleinbasel), with its own succession of shops, restaurants and boutiques.
Basel is the cultural heart of Switzerland, with a prestigious university and over 40 museums. Among them, the Museum of Modern History – whose entrance is free for the lucky owners of the Swiss Pass – especially renown for its majestic reconstruction of modern and ancient animals, including a mammoth, a giraffe and a dodo.
But if you really want to experience Basel at its best, then you will have to visit it during Carnival, when the town wakes up at dawn with the Morgenstreich, the beginning of a three-day celebration. Only then you will see the true Basel: a town full of joy, colours and life.