The El Dorado for anyone who loves Christmas tree decorations, a playground for daring ice skaters, and a vibrant Christmas wonderland. Basel is all this during the Advent season.
The morning of 23 November shows little sign of the festive Christmas atmosphere that will embrace Basel later on in the day. The temperature is spring-like and the bustling area in front of the station is thronging with pedestrians, trams and buses. Thanks to the “Christmas in Basel” RailAway combined offer we can travel to Basel with half-price train tickets and the tram to the Barfüsserplatz, known locally as the “Barfi”, is included too. It’s just a short tram ride, but it takes us right into the heart of the Christmas wonderland.
This year will be the 40th time that traders will have decorated their stalls in the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz city squares. With more than 180 stalls, there’s still a fair amount to do before the official opening in the evening. Enough time to look round the city.
Thinking about Basel delicacies automatically brings the deliciously spiced “Basler Läckerli” biscuits to mind. These gingerbread biscuits are eaten all year round even though they are made with spices commonly associated with Christmas, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove powder. The abundance of spices in the Läckerli biscuit dough has a historic basis: the city was an important trading hub on the Rhine and so it had early access to foreign spices. Even saffron grew in the mild climate of Basel in the 14th century. Streets such as Pfeffergässlein (named after pepper) and Imbergässlein (named after ginger) remind you of this as you take a walk down Nadelberg.
Imbergässlein ends up at Andreasplatz, a square in the heart of the city. Although the square is only a few metres away from the bustling shopping streets, it seems as if time stands still here, with an atmosphere of reflective tranquillity.
Eating and getting warm.
Basel is a hilly city, and we soon work up an appetite with all the walking up and down. Luckily, we’ve reserved a table at the Wacker Fonduestübli fondue restaurant in the Münsterplatz. A steaming fondue with crusty bread and potatoes arrives at the table in no time. The menu also has all kinds of cheese tartlets, known as “Käskiechli”, as well as wonderful platters. The Stübli dessert is a light and fluffy surprise made of meringues, cream, and “Basler Läckerli” biscuits. The wood burner and lots of sheepskins make the restaurant warm and cosy. If you have nothing against Swiss accordion music, you will enjoy spending some time here.
If you’re spending a whole day in Basel and need to warm up your feet now and again, we recommend visiting one of the many museums.
- Spielzeug Welten Museum: The Lebzelter and confectioner special exhibition will have edible Christmas tree decorations on show until 11 February 2018. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees dates back to the 17th century. In those days, trees were largely decorated with nuts, apples and cookies. The exhibition shows these trees of edibles (known as “Fressbäume”) and decorations from various Swiss cantons.
- The “Museum der Kulturen”, or Museum of Cultures, has a special exhibition all about the Star of Bethlehem. The Star will guide you through the exhibition and to Christmas cribs from all over the world. The museum also includes a descriptive presentation of discussions relating to the Star, and the different ways in which astronomers, astrologers, and art historians have interpreted it.
A trip to the Children’s Island.
And talking of Christmas decorations: There is only one address for these, and that is Spalenberg 14. Johann Wanner has been selling handmade Christmas tree decorations here at his specialist shop for almost 50 years – where you can buy them all year round. Mr Wanner still has original stock from the 1960s. Silver garlands and Stanniol Lametta, angel hair tinsel and straw stars, birds, baubles, and hearts – as far as the eye can see. Here, you will find Christmas tree decorations in all colours, as well as the traditional red, blue, silver and gold. Colour trends for 2017: rose and pink.
Mr Wanner is well known in Basel. And no wonder. Apparently, Michael Jackson, Lady Di and Hillary Clinton were among his most famous customers. Mr Wanner explained modestly, “Oh, not everything you read on Wikipedia is true.” Generally speaking, the 78-year-old would much rather talk about Christmas than about his clientele, anyway. But is Advent still special if you are surrounded by glittering opulence day in, day out? More than anything, he loves to see children’s eyes light up when they come into his shop during Advent. “Christmas is like a children’s island, and I live on this island the whole year round – that is, when I’m not sitting in my office.” He smiled mischievously at the camera as he said this.
Children are important for Mr Wanner in other ways, too: Johann Wanner is not annoyed when they press their sticky hands and faces flat against his shop window after visiting the cupcake shop next door. In fact, he sees this as a reliable guide for what is popular.
Mr Wanner has also decorated the tree in front of the cathedral, as he does every year. “Tree decorations are a part of life; they are not just ornaments.” With this motto in mind, the decorations pick up on the Basel conflict over the Cathedral treasury: the Christmas tree gleams with gold and silver. The stars refer to the star of David on one of the two side windows of the cathedral and the golden angels reflect the angel above the apse of the church and spread the good news. His trademark always has to be included: a devil’s head will always be hidden somewhere.
Thousands of lights.
In the meantime, night has fallen, the stalls at the two Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz squares are brightly lit, and the traders are ready. Arts and crafts, toys, natural cosmetic products, candles and clothing – the right gift is there for every visitor. The aromas of mulled wine and grilled sausages mingle together. The hilarious serenading elks create a wonderful atmosphere while the Christmas pyramid goes round and round. We have now finally arrived at the Christmas wonderland.
The Christmas lights have finally been switched on against the backdrop of the festive sound of the horn ensemble from Basel Music Academy and the extra choir from Theater Basel. Thousands of lights now illuminate the streets, from Freie Strasse, across the river on the Mittlere Brücke, and all the way to Messeplatz.And the much-loved stars of light sparkle around the cathedral, rivalling only the light in the children’s eyes.
You can even see the golden glow of the Christmas tree in the courtyard at the town hall where busy gnomes were adding the last lights to the tree when we first visited this morning. We stop briefly for one last time, and write down our wish-lists for Christmas and the coming year in the Basel Wish Book.
Photos: Patrick Scherz