Basel: City on the Rhine

Münster and Terraces overlooking the Rhine, Basel

Basel has a strong relationship with the Rhine. The city is uniquely located, at a point between the tight, fast-flowing upper courses in Switzerland, and the broad meanders known to Northern Europe.

From its source in the canton of Graubünden, the Rhine passes through six countries and covers a distance of 1320 kilometres. On the edge of France, Germany and Switzerland, the river changes direction, turning from west to north, and forming the ‘Rhine Knee’. North of Basel, the river is a natural border between France and Germany. In the docklands at Kleinhüningen, the three countries formally meet. This so-called Dreiländereck is marked by a sculpture from Wilhem Münger.

Basel is Switzerland’s third largest city, with a population of 190000 inhabitants. The area was originally settled by the Romans and the Celts, who found defensive topography and trading opportunities where smaller tributaries flow into the Rhine. The old centre is characterised by ridged roofs, with many gables, balconies and overhanging eaves. Medieval buildings grew up around the Gothic Münster (1013-1500s), which is constructed on a small plateau.

Today, the city is known for being a centre of pharmaceuticals, banking, and publishing. The river is still important for trade, allowing container barges and tankers from Rotterdam access to Switzerland. Passenger craft also make the journey up-river. Against the current, this can take over five days. Near to the Jura Mountains, Bernese Oberland and Black Forest, Basel is an attractive place to work and study. Famous locals have included Erasmus, Nitezsche and Bernoulli, as well as architects Herzog and de Meuron, who set-up their main practice here. The city was also home to Switzerland’s first university, and now has a large teaching hospital. Grossbasel, on the Rhine’s south bank, is where most of the tourist sights are located. The Rathaus (townhall), has a colourful painted facade, with frescoes in the courtyard. Other attractions include a fountain with moving sculptures by Jean Tinguely, a work by Richard Serra, and a world-class arts museum. Across the river in Kleinbasel, the Messe exhibition centre includes a 31-storey glass skyscraper, which was once the tallest building in the country.

Kleinbasel,with Münster-Fähre ‘Leu’ in the foreground

Crossing from Grossbasel to Kleinbasel, has proved an issue of historical interest. Until the mid 19th Century, Mittlere Brücke (1225) was the single crossing point to the north-east. To provide more crossing places, reaction ferries were established. Serving as flying bridges, these boats used the Rhine current as their sole driving force.

Currently, there are four ferries in operation: Wild Maa, at St Alban; Leu, at the Münster; Vogel Gryff, the Klingental- Fähre, and Ueli, the St. Johann-Fähre. At each crossing point, steel cables are tensioned across the river. A tether line from each ferry is connected to a collar that can move freely along the cable. Positioning the boat at 45 degrees to the Rhine current forces water to strike one side of the craft. A reaction force then propels the boat in the opposite direction. The Basel Fähre is a flat-bottomed, wooden craft, with curved bows and long benches on either side. At the front, a large platform allows passengers to embark and disembark. The rear third is covered by a small hut, from where the Fäärimaa (ferryman) operates the ferry, and passengers can shelter in bad weather. To control the speed, the boat can be positioned at a range of angles, by using rudders. This means that it is possible to slow down when reaching the other bank. To change direction, the Fäärimaa (ferryman) passes a level from one side of the boat to the other, reversing the side of the craft the tether is connected to. Ingeniously, the boat only needs man-power to push off and come into land. After that, the speed is largely dependent on the flow of the Rhine. When the water is high, it is sometimes too dangerous to sail. If the water is low, speed can be increased by attaching different side boards or rowing. The journey on Ueli, the lowest craft on the river, takes the longest, since here the Rhine is wider. Karl Städeli has been a Fäärimaa for nearly 40 years. His fähre, Leu, has a crossing of 185m, connecting the Münster with Kleinbasel. In a full day, his boat travels 9.25 km back and forth across the river.

Münster-Fähre, showing tether cable and lever mechanism

Gradually, as the Wettsteinbrücke (1879), Johanniter- (1882) and the Dreirosenbrücke (1934) were built, the ferries became less profitable. A foundation, the Stiftung Basler Fähren, was created to maintain the boats, promote tourist use, and ensure they remain part of Basel’s urban character. Baslers are encouraged to become friends of the ferry, by joining the Fähre-Verein. Their members are 4000 strong, giving assistance through donations, fundraising and forming a social network.

Klingental-Fähre ‘Vogel Gryff’ at 45 degrees to the Rhine current

Today, the ferries are leased to private owners, and run without state donation. A crossing costs 1.60 Swiss Francs for adults. Each boat can carry a maximum of 34 people, and will usually operate from 9am – 8pm. During the annual Fasnacht festival, the ferries run longer services into the night. There is also the opportunity to try-out ferry sailing, or they can be hired for special events, with aperitifs or fondue as extras. Over the Summer, there will be a special nautical-themed charity concert to raise money for a new craft. This is expected to cost around 400000 Francs. When well-built, the boat can last 30 years in rain, wind and bad weather.

Basel’s Fähre are a small example of the life the city harnesses from the Rhine. Along the river, terraced banks provide a place for people to relax, view the Basel skyline, and watch the ferries crossing back and forth. Basel just wouldn’t be the same without the Rhine: it’s the driving force that keeps this dynamic city moving.

Basel: On The Rhine, City Plan

Wallpaper City Guide (2012) Basel, Phaidon.
Basel Tourism
Basel Fähre-Verein

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