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BBC – Travel – The Swiss city where even pleasure is serious

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Until 6 p.m., Basel is ready to go. This is not a place where you can waltz a meeting five minutes late – not in this Swiss city whose main industries, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, are all focused on precision and control.

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But when the working day is over, Basel quickly reveals its other face full of pleasure.

In summer, hundreds of professionals wander on the banks of the Rhine and undress to their skivvies. Then they put on their business clothes in a waterproof backpack called wickelfisch (“Fish pack”), jump into the river and let its fast current bring them home.

Andreas Ruby, director of Swiss museum of architecture in Basel, calls it a “liquid form of strolling“.

“Sometimes you will see groups of people chatting together on the river like old friends. In fact, it was strangers who found themselves catching the same current, “said Ruby.

“Many love stories have started on the Rhine,” he added, with a playful glint in his eye.

Located at the exact point where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, Basel, which has nearly 200,000 inhabitants, straddles a particularly pastoral turn of the Rhine. From the towers of its Gothic cathedral, you can look north along emerald green farms and vineyards to see the Vosges of France and the Black Forest of Germany.

Many love stories started on the Rhine

At first glance, it seems like a nice, but not exciting, place to do business. You might even be tempted to stay for a quiet weekend exploring the historic center of Basel, a tidy hodgepodge of medieval and modern. But if you dive under its surface, you will discover the seductive contradictions that make Basel very fun.

Suitable for a city with deep Calvinist roots, much of this pleasure literally takes place underground. In the basements along the alleys of the historic center, groups of revelers called Cliques meet month after month to prepare the noisy 72-hour carnival of Basel.

Known as Fasnacht, the Basel Carnival is a special blend of discipline and joie de vivre. Unesco added Fasnacht to their list of intangible cultural heritage in 2017, because it is deeply rooted in the contemporary culture of the city while preserving centuries-old traditions.

Usually, carnival is a last eruption before Lent, the time of the Christian calendar for penance and sober reflection. But being Basel, the Fasnacht actually starts on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday – that is, after Lent has already started. Even stranger is the fact that Basel celebrates Fasnacht. Other Protestant cities began to ban the festival in the 16th century, viewing it as pagan. Basle leaders actually tried to do the same, but the Basles insisted on their right to party. Today, Fasnacht is one of the only Protestant carnivals in the world.

But Fasnacht is not exactly a Bacchanalian for everyone, like the carnivals in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. “He’s definitely menstruating,” said Judith Kakon, an artist from Basel.

For example, only members of Cliques are allowed to wear costumes; civilians should wear street clothes. And the festival always starts with Swiss precision at exactly 04:00. It was then that the power company turned off all the street lights and the historic center was suddenly illuminated by the light of thousands of handmade lanterns. And although there is plenty to drink, it is considered left to get drunk.

In part, this is so that people can continue nonstop for three days and nights of costumed parades and Guggeskonzerten (brass band concerts) and bars. But in part, it’s so they can keep their minds about them.

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“They want to be able to criticize all the songs, poems and costumes,” said Kakon.

After all, Fasnacht also has important business to do. Masked figures burst into cafes and recite poems, punching humorous and often biting punches at both global and local brokers. Recent goals range from Kim Jong-un and Angela Merkel to the decision of the Basel police to buy a Tesla. As Unesco says, Fasnacht is “a huge satirical magazine where all visual or rhetorical means are used to mock faults and errors” of the previous year.

Above all, Fasnacht is a “huge collective art project,” said Kakon – a shared reaffirmation of the city’s commitment to beauty.

It is no coincidence that Art Basel is the most important art fair in the world, according to Anita Haldemann, deputy director of Kunstmuseum Basel, widely regarded as the most beautiful art museum in Switzerland. “Art is the DNA of the city,” she said.

This reverence from art to art is a little surprising. After all, Protestant practicality and hard work go deep – and they paid off greatly. With an average income of 185,826 Swiss francs (around £ 154,000), depending on the latest government figures, Basel is one of the richest cities in Switzerland per capita.

Art is the DNA of the city

And much of this wealth is used to support the arts. In reality, Kunstmuseum Basel is the oldest civic museum in Europe. Its basic collection was acquired by the city in 1661 and made available to the public soon after. And there are still huge private collections in the city. “Sometimes we don’t even know what they have,” said Haldemann.

But the wealthy don’t just hoard their assets. “There is social pressure on the wealthy to support the arts,” added Ruby.

But with typically Swiss discretion, customers often do so downward.

“Many families donate money anonymously,” said Haldemann. “Sometimes it’s $ 10,000 a year, sometimes a lot more.”

Another of Basel’s aesthetic passions is contemporary architecture. In the city and its hinterland, you can visit works of no less than 12 Pritzker Prize winners, by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid at the Herzog + de Meuron boutique.

But in the way erased from Basel, there are no massive buildings that attract attention, like, let’s say, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or Metropol umbrella from Seville. If contemporary works are often playful and sophisticated, they also tend towards an almost monastic simplicity.

This mixture of plain and sumptuous is particularly evident in the new wing of the Kunstmuseum, opened in 2016. Designed by the local company Christ & Gantenbein, it is all in gray and rough textures, but its entrance and its luminous galleries are a striking beauty. The new wing has even evoked near-religious language from critics, including Rowan Moore of the Guardian, who wrote that he “transcends gender” to achieve the “miraculous”.

However, art in Basel is not limited to museums. It is perfectly distributed in the outdoor spaces of the city and is an integral part of the pleasure of daily life, as in the square Basel Theater, which houses both a massive sculpture by Richard Serra and a Dada-esque fountain filled with kinetic works inspired by Jean Tinguely Fasnacht. The Swiss Museum of Architecture is on the east side of the square, and Ruby says that at night, students with bottles of wine and beer turn the space into an open-air bar. “And the Serra sculpture becomes a giant pissoir (public toilets), ”he adds with surprising good humor for a museum curator.

The city’s some 300 public fountains are another institution where art, pleasure and the public good are improbable. Many are not only beautiful, but also large enough for swimming. And in summer, many Baselers do it.

A favorite is Pisoni-Brunnen (Pisoni Fountain), just down the street from the Kunstmuseum and in the harsh shadow of the city’s massive 1000-year-old cathedral. Like many Basel fountains, it is an 18th century work of sober Baroque elegance. It is also large enough to cool half a dozen or more people in hot weather.

Shortly after moving from Basel to Berlin, Ruby said he was surprised one summer afternoon to see a very elegant 70-year-old woman at ease in a public fountain.

“She was wearing a big sun hat, reading a magazine and relaxing,” he said.

While he was watching, a boy came and filled his plastic bottle with the spout of the fountain. After all, the water in the Basel fountains is not only refreshing, it is also drinkable.

Despite all its sophistication, moments like this can make Basel a hard worker like a relaxed party town. And the city’s relatively small dimensions add to that sense of ease and cohesion, said Ruby.

The city is to meet

When he lived in Berlin, he said, making plans involved a lot of negotiation, because everyone was busy, had long journeys and lived so far from each other. But in Basel, you’re never more than 10 minutes by bike from a central meeting point.

“The city is here to meet,” said Ruby. “It belongs to a population and not to a society. It’s like a giant public space. “

On a sunny day, the one kilometer walk on the north bank of the Rhine is the perfect place to catch this spirit. It works like the city’s de facto beach and, of course, you can swim in the river. Just be warned that the river can keep you away from your valuables. Better to stick them in a wickelfisch, which are available at the Basel Tourist Office for 30 Swiss francs (around £ 25).

After sunset, head north Hirscheneck, a clean and sparkling bar-restaurant that keeps the Fasnacht spirit alive all year round. Upstairs, delicious French dishes and local beers are, by Swiss standards, at a reasonable price. And the basement doubles as a dance club, as well as a forum for ambitious aesthetic and political discussions.

A great place to end your day, Hirscheneck is, like the fountains and the Fasnacht and many other things in Basel, a real pleasure.

Soul of the city is a series of BBC Travel that invites you to discover the unique characteristics of cities around the world through the stories of the people who live there.

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