Switzerland is a small country. According to the CIA World Factbook (a surprisingly useful source of country information, available on the Net), Switzerland is slightly less than twice the size of New Jersey. One can’t help but wonder how this particular unit of measurement came about. Americans often measure land in state equivalents, and the “Rhode Island” is almost a standardized unit, but why use the “New Jersey”? Why not simply say that Switzerland is 28 percent bigger than Maryland? Or 65 percent as large as West Virginia? Then again, who knows how the CIA reasons?
But I digress already.
For its small area (roughly half the size of South Carolina), Switzerland is amazingly diverse. The country has four distinct official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch, and many citizens speak only one of them … and all this in a country that’s only one-third the size of Mississippi. Of greater interest, though, is the fact that every Swiss city is different, with an entirely different architecture, history, and overall feel to it. There’s the serene majesty of Geneva, the calm beauty of Lugano, the soothing air of Lausanne, and the downright boring streets of Montreux. Let’s face it—as different as they are, most Swiss cities are pretty dull. True, Zurich and Bern have a bit of life to them, but on the whole, it’s not a swinging country—except during jazz festivals, of course. That’s not to say these cities shouldn’t be visited. After all, boring places have their stories to tell too, and when all is said and done, a place is as exciting as you make it. It’s simply a question of how hard you have to work at it. You have to make a conscious effort to be placid in cities like Amsterdam, Rome, or New York, whereas if you want to have your heart race in most Swiss cities then you’d best take along some artificial stimulants.
Basel is no different: boring but interesting. It’s situated on the Rhine, and the city borders on both France and Germany. The residents tend to speak Schweizerdeutsch, the difficult Swiss version of German. They tend not to speak French or Italian. Of course, this may be a lie. They may all speak these languages perfectly but are simply too amused listening to me try to speak to them in German. The Swiss get their kicks as best they can.
The old center of Basel is very pleasant. It’s crisscrossed with tramways, for one thing. I like tramways. It also features a great market square, the Marktplatz, which has a nice little open-air market in it on most days. The square is dominated by the Rathaus, which is one of the reddest monumental buildings you’re likely to come across. Delhi’s Red Fortress isn’t as red as this building. The Moulin Rouge isn’t as red as this place. It’s the reddest.
The building houses the government of the canton of Basel. (Switzerland is divided into cantons. Who knows, maybe Swiss intelligence services measure areas in terms of multiples of cantons: “We have learned that their state of New Hampshire is as big as thirty Unterwaldens.”) The cantonal government meets there regularly, and you can actually observe their debates! I discovered this quite by accident, while I poked around in the red courtyard of the Rathaus looking at the paintings and statues and the little unhappy faces carved into the window frames. At the end of the courtyard is a place to park your bicycle, and on the right, near a statue of a strikingly ugly man in Renaissance armor, is a door marked “Tribune.” If you go through this door and climb a bunch of stairs, you’ll come to a small gallery of what look like church pews, overlooking the assembly room.
It’s a nice room. The delegates (or whatever one calls people elected to a Swiss cantonal assembly) sit in a half-circle arrangement facing a central podium, at which sit other people, who I assume have some even more significant function. All that is typical, as governmental assemblies go, but the room itself is worth a look, and even the delegates themselves are a bit of a hoot.
Up in the gallery, you’re treated to a good view of the ceiling, which is covered with images of plants and the people who make them grow. On the walls of the gallery are images of knights and ladies and, of course, a crossbowman or two. (In case you didn’t know, William Tell didn’t shoot the apple off his son’s head with a bow but with a crossbow, and the weapon has always been dear to the Swiss.) The main room boasts two rather modern paintings of Renaissance scenes. I couldn’t help but think that the characters in the paintings looked very much like bankers wearing costumes, but perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood.
From up in the gallery, you can watch delegates read the newspaper while some other delegate drones on about something in Schweizerdeutsch. While I was there, an animated man in a gray suit and a beard was going on about life sciences while the others read a variety of journals. He was eventually replaced by a less animated man with a gray suit and a shorter beard who seemed to be discussing the same topic, although whether he agreed or disagreed with the first man was beyond my powers of comprehension. Eventually, he was replaced by a man with no beard at all and an unusual blue suit with thin red crosshatching. The assembly seemed to be more abuzz while this last man spoke, but it may just be that they were tittering about his clothes.
Scattered around the assembly room are images of a strange creature. It looks like a cross between a chicken and a dragon. I came upon the same figure, or one of its evil cousins, spitting water into any number of fountains. Funnily enough, I had never noticed these things before, although I am often in Basel. I figured the best place to clear up the mystery was at the history museum.
The history museum of Basel is a great place. For one thing, it’s in a big old converted church. For another, it has a collection of armor and weapons, which always interests me. Lots of pikes and crossbows, of course. It also has a collection of old globes, from as early as the fifteenth century. I love old globes. They’re really wrong. But the history museum’s greatest attraction is The Dance of Death, a series of nineteen fragments from a larger fifteenth-century work. Each fragment corresponds to a dialogue between Death and some individual, ranging from popes to pagans. For the most part, Death is saying, “It’s time to go,” and the individual is complaining about it.
I also managed to find out in the museum what the chicken-dragon thing is. It’s a basilisk. Basel has long been associated with the mythical creature, which apparently is very different from J. K. Rowling’s version. No one seems to know why the city was first linked to the beast; it may just be because the names are similar. It does go back a long time, though. In fact, in 1474 a rooster was publicly executed in the Münsterplatz because it was purported to have laid a basilisk egg. (Yes, basilisks are born of eggs laid by roosters. You learn something new every day.) I think it was hanged, which seems a very complicated way to kill a rooster, but the Swiss are sticklers for rules, and if you lay a basilisk egg, you get hanged.
No basilisks haunt Basel today. It’s a very calm place. The worst you have to fear is long-winded Swiss politicians, but brave them and check out the cantonal assembly in the Rathaus. It’s true they govern an area that’s only one-sixth the size of Rhode Island, but that’s still 12 percent bigger than Liechtenstein.