Basel, the Crossroad of Three Countries

Basel isn’t commonly heard of – at least not in this part of the world – yet hardly a nondescript, insignificant city, it being the third most populous in Switzerland, after Zurich and Geneva. Apart from this little nugget of information, there is something even more interesting: it is situated at the tripoint of Switzerland, Germany and France, and likely the reason for its high population number. It was also our one-night pitstop from Innsbruck to Strasbourg.

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We set off early in the day from Innsbruck, knowing we have much distance to cover (the whole width of Switzerland and 1/3 width of Austria), and found ourselves quite alone in our quiet car on the Railjet. Which was just as well… we were completely knackered after a late night partaking in Innsbruck’s New Year Eve countdown activities.

I napped for quite a while, and woke up to a rather worried-looking husband – his brows knitted tight together while constantly looking out of the train windows and alternately looking down at his mobile phone. Then I realised something was wrong; the train had stopped in the middle of nowhere. I looked quizzically at the mister for an explanation.

‘The train has rerouted for a while now. It’s not taking a direct route to Zurich but making a detour and going northwards,’ he explained, while showing me his mobile phone. So he had been tracking the route our train was taking since he couldn’t understand the announcements in German but noticed the frequent stops. A supposedly mundane and routine transit just turned very interesting. I had a zillion questions to ask, but first and foremost on my mind, was how many people who were supposed to catch this train would be affected by the rerouting.

Being the executor of our travel plan, the mister was preoccupied with another more urgent thought – would we be able to catch our connecting train from Zurich to Basel? I was much less concerned but in the overall scheme of things, ours seemed to be a very tiny problem; one of the passengers in our car had a flight to catch at Zurich Airport.

We decided to ask the train conductor about our situation the next time he walked by. He estimated that we might make it just on time for our connection, but even if we missed it, we could board the next one (there are frequent trains from Zurich to Basel) with the same train tickets. He also told us that many trains were rerouted so it was a widespread issue. I wondered what exactly happened…

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We barely made it for our connection. It was fortunate that our train arrived on a track adjacent to our connecting train. It wasn’t a walk just across the platform but yea, we got on just about 2 minutes before the train rolled out of the station. It was our lucky day but the heart palpitations…

Basel is a very busy railway station. What is more interesting is, two countries’ railway stations operated in the very same building, just different sections – SBB for the Swiss and SNCF for the French. The gateway to Germany is located in another part of Basel.

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Euler Hotel Basel is literally a stone’s throw away from the railway station. I was rather intimidated by the large tram station right in front of Basel SBB but the mister was very cool about stepping out confidently after trams passed.

I believed we were just slightly too early for check-in, but they checked us in anyway. I’m always grateful to any hotel that checks us in early so Euler Hotel Basel is definitely going into my must-go-back-to list if we return to Basel. We upgraded to a deluxe room when Booking.com presented us with an offer. The deluxe room was nice and spacious; more than comfortable for a one night’s stay. However we couldn’t operate the TV control or switch on the TV so we went without it the whole night (I usually like to keep the TV on when I sleep, especially in unfamiliar rooms). On hindsight we could have alerted the hotel staff of this little problem we had but oh well, we didn’t.

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We absolutely wasted no time in getting out of the hotel to see Basel since we could spare but little time to see this city. The first stop – Tinguely Fountain with its several amusing machine sculptures. That fountain was so fascinating I swear could have stood there all day long just watching it, complete with a silly grin on my face. The mister had to pull me away.

The gorgeous neo-Gothic church in the background is Elisabeth Church (Elisabethenkirche). We decided to give it a miss since we were running on a tight schedule.

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We caught a tram to Altstadt, the old town of Basel and walked the narrow, windy streets while admiring the pretty buildings exuding old world charm of Europe. Weather was good, and because it was New Year’s Day the streets were rather deserted hence we practically had the whole old town to ourselves. Nice!

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As we walked into yet another street leading to Basel Town Hall (Rathaus) and the old market square, I noticed something queer about the pavements – they were lined with brass plates on both sides of the road. By and by, I passed by enough to conclude that the plates were not placed there by accident; they must mean something.

That was when I called out to the mister (who had walked much ahead of me while I trailed behind) because I knew that he was busy navigating and have completely missed the brass plates. I took a closer look at the plates, and all were inscribed with a name and a year. At that point, I guessed those must be names of eminent individuals from Basel and the years must be their corresponding year of death.

Gosh, I couldn’t be more wrong about the latter. At the end (or beginning, depending on how you look at it) of the street I came by a metal plate on a wall. It explained that we just walked through the Spalenberg walk of fame and the year indicated when the name was inscribed. Oops. My bad for assuming they were death years.

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We finally arrived at the old market square. I loved the colour of the 5-century old Rathaus! It is rather uncommon to see town halls in such vibrant colours; town halls are typically very stately and important looking, not to mention ornately decorated. In contrast, Basel’s town house facade looks rather austere, doesn’t it?

There was also a tall Christmas tree standing at the market square in front of the town house, but the lights were not lit and it was also withering so I decided not to include a picture of it. I reckon this must be the location of their main Christmas market but given that Christmas was a few days back, it’s no wonder the festive market had long wrapped up.

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We walked, and walked, since the weather was so nice. There were several like-minded residents out and about on this stretch of the bank. Parents bringing young children for walks, elderly couples strolling… and a couple of travellers like us both. Very quiet, serene and peaceful. Comparatively, Singapore is simply too crowded everywhere.

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While walking along the bank, something caught out eye – a unique ferry that was carrying passengers to and fro Basel Munster. What was so intriguing was the ferry crosses the river solely by means of tipping the boat with the help of a metal rod placed in the opposite side of the direction the ferry operator wished to go, and letting the currents push the boat along. Purely hydrophysics. No machines, no motors, no menial labour; just a wire across the river affixed at the two banks, a wire attached from boat to the main wire, and a metal rod. Amazing, eh? I couldn’t quite believe it even when we took the ferry across to our next destination.

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Oh? Yet another red building? The Basel Munster is built in red sandstone over 5 centuries from 1019 to 1500. Originally a Catholic church, it is now a Reformed Protestant church. Just to highlight how important this church is – it is also listed as a heritage site of national significance in Switzerland. Wow. Sounds like a very important building. We took some pictures quickly since the sky was darkening, and barely managed to get a few good shots.

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We made our way back to the main rail station as night fell. At dusk, to be exact. Do I even have to explain why I like taking pictures during the blue hour? Just look at the pictures. 🙂

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I was insane enough to wake up early the next morning to get to the banks of River Rhine for a blue hour photoshoot. It was not only insanity on my part, I got the mister involved too, albeit grudgingly. And did I mention it was also raining? If you ask me now, I think it was all worth it. Some of my most awesome pictures from the trip were taken here. The rain was irritating and potentially causing damage to my lens, but I loved the accidental effects the raindrops caused. Between the two above, the mister’s preference was for the second; he felt that the first picture too busy and didn’t have a focus. Honestly? Both my babies so I love them equally. 😆
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When in Switzerland, buy Swiss chocolates, everyone says. I have an additional advice: when in Basel, try some Basel Lackerli, a traditional hard spice biscuit originating from the city. I saw the huge bars of chocolate at Basel rail station, and couldn’t resist taking a picture of it to WA to my mum, who is a huge fan of Swiss chocolates. Didn’t buy any though since I’m really not a fan. But Basel Lackerli we bought, since we thought it would be a very nice gift to bring home to friends and colleagues. Acquired taste though. Not many people back home liked it.

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Since we were headed for Strasbourg, we had to make our way to the French section of the railway station. The access was kind of controlled, i.e. going in is not difficult but coming back out… you must have a reason for it. No passport control though.

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And then we went on our way to France.

VAT REBATE IN EUROPE:
Now, you have to pay extra attention if you are like me, having bought luxury goods within the EU but departing for home from Switzerland. I bought a wallet in Munich, and would be flying home from Zurich so it meant that I would need to get a stamp from the customs prior to leaving the last point in the EU if I wanted to get my VAT refund. For me that point would be at Basel SNCF. Since we wouldn’t have time to stop at Basel on our way back to Zurich from Strasbough later on we thought of trying to get the customs stamp at Basel prior to leaving for France (although technically it wouldn’t be our last stop in the EU yet). It would have completely worked, except that the French customs office at Basel SNCF wasn’t manned on 2 Jan 2016. We walked over to the Swiss customs office, intending to ask them about the French. And we were told that 3/4 of the time, the French customs office isn’t manned. In fact, their presence had been so sporadic there was no telling when they would turn up at the office. That was bad news for me. It meant that I have to give up hope of getting my refund of 80€, which isn’t all that much. I’d ever had to give up a VAT refund of 700€ (or risk missing my flight at Charles de Gaulle). That’s another story for another time. I learnt my lesson though i.e. never to depart from Switzerland if I am intending to claim VAT refund from the EU countries.

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