Travels & Traditions: Northwestern Switzerland - #312

BURT WOLF: Basel in the Northwest corner of Switzerland is the nation's third largest city. Its citizens are polite, organized and efficient. They speak German, have a deep respect for their history and tend to lead lives that are financially conservative. But that's only half the story. On the Monday morning after Ash Wednesday, tens of thousands of people gather in the streets. At exactly four AM, the lights of the city go out.

And huge lanterns go on. Basel's annual Fasnacht Festival has begun. Each lantern belongs to a group who built it in order to express their thoughts on a specific subject. Both positive and negative feelings are presented. The festival continues for three days. Like all European festivals that mark the beginning of Lent, Basel's Fasnacht has its roots in ancient celebrations that gave people with less power the opportunity to comment on people with more power. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Fasnacht is actually a perfect symbol for Basel, because along with its somewhat conservative Swiss German structure, it also has a long history of being liberal, intellectual and creative.

BURT WOLF: About eight miles north of Basel are the ruins of an ancient Roman city of Augusta Raurica. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar asked an old friend to move into the neighborhood and set up a town. One of the reasons he picked this area was that it was midway on the trade route between Rome and London, and at the time London was part of an important Roman colony. In the 1800s, serious excavation began at the site, and today about 20 percent of the ancient city has been uncovered. There's a museum with 700,000 artifacts from the area, including a silver table service, a gilded candelabra, and hundreds of silver coins that were buried in the middle of the fourth century to hide them from invading German tribes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the time, a spoon had a bowl at one end and a pick at the other. But it was hundreds of years before the introduction of the fork, so if you wanted to pick up a small piece of food, you picked at it with the pick end, which may be where the phrase "picky eater" came from. 

BURT WOLF: The museum also has a reconstructed private home from the period. This is what a kitchen looked like 2000 years ago. Pots and pans are almost the same, the dish for cooking snails looks very similar to the ones we use today. The grill is exactly the same, and that bowl would have been perfect for Caesar salad. The ancient Roman system for heating a house was very cool. The servants working outside the house made a fire, boiled water and sent the steam under the floor. The walls were filled with a series of pipes that let the steam escape as it heated the floors and the walls. They've also uncovered an ancient Roman mosaic depicting gladiators in battle all dressed just like Russell Crowe.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the most interesting finds took place in 1998 when the staff discovered a well with five bodies inside that dated back to these ancient Romans. 

BURT WOLF: Scars on the bones and skulls indicate that they had been killed and the bodies hidden under a huge stone. But why? Under the stone and under the bodies the archeologists found 6,000 molds for making counterfeit money. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They were criminals who were secretly executed by the government and buried with their counterfeiting tools. Basel has a long history of appreciating creativity in craft work, but at some point you just got to draw the line. 

BURT WOLF: And one of the lines drawn in Basel is between big Basel and little Basel. Actually it's not a line, it's the Rhine River. Basel's got the ancient history, but both have attitude. This is the head of the Tongue King statue, whose image is often reproduced around town. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For many years the Tongue King sat on the big Basel side of the bridge expressing his opinion of little Basel. But each year, little Basel has its own festival during which the participants express their opinion of big Basel. And they do that by directing their back sides to the city. Now I didn't think you really had to see that, but take my word for it. It happens. 

BURT WOLF: Directly across the river from the Tongue King is a statue that depicts Helvetia who represents the spirit of Switzerland. You can see her in her official stance on the two franc coin. As a statue, she is presented as having left home with her suitcase, and she's sitting by the river contemplating her future, which of course is the future of the nation. 

During the early seventies, Dr. Hans Jakob Nydegger as part of his medical research was studying the properties of yeast, and the more he studied them, the more he thought about beer, because without yeast, you can't make beer. Eventually his thirst for knowledge just turned into thirst, and he opened the Fischerstube Brewery. They brew four different types of beer and offer them in a tasting. There's a light, a special, which is their standard, one made from wheat and one flavored with ginger. A tree of salted pretzels sits in the middle of the table just in case your thirst begins to falter. When you know which beer you like, you can get a glass or a stein full, and if you are a regular, you can have your own stein with your name on the top. Gives you a sense of community, and for some people it helps them remember their name. If you're a serious beer lover but you do most of your drinking at home, you can get the Fischerstube official take home jug, which contains two liters.

The most interesting way to cross the Rhine from little Basel to big Basel is on a ferry. The idea of having a ferry service came from the chairman of the Art Society who thought it would be a good way to raise money for the group's exhibition space. His first ferry went into operation in the middle of the 1800s and was an immediate success, both in terms of public use and as a money maker for the society. Today there are four ferries crossing up and back, and they utilize the river itself as a source of power. The front of the boat has a rod that is connected to a cable. The cable runs across the river from one bank to the other. A lever can position the cable on one side of the boat or the other. The ferry will move in the direction where the cable is positioned. The force of the current pushes the boat in the direction its pointing, but the lines of the cable keeps the boat from going downstream and redirects the force so the boat just goes across to the other side. It uses the natural energy of the river, which is perpetually available and free. When one of the large barges comes down the Rhine, the ferryman directs the boat into the current, which keeps it in one place or he can turn it back towards the other side. Jacques Thurneysen is the ferryman who works the boat that goes up and back from the cathedral.

JACQUES ON CAMERA: Good morning, good morning.

BURT WOLF: The ferryman has a role in the mythology of almost every society. He takes you from where you are to where you must go, both physically and mentally. 

JACQUES ON CAMERA: The most interesting part of my job is that ... the whole world is passing by you. I get to know all kinds of people from all over the world, and everybody carries his history, his story with him and sometimes they let me have a little bit of their story.

BURT WOLF: It was a ferryman that took the ancient Greeks between life in this world and death in the underworld. It was a ferryman that took Buddha to a place of greater understanding. Ferrymen often give travelers important advice.

JACQUES ON CAMERA: Eat at the Safran House. You will like it.

BURT ON CAMERA: Eat at the Safran House ... huh. 

BURT WOLF: I wonder what he meant by that? Was he using Saffron as a symbol for self indulgence? It ... it's expensive stuff. Or was he telling me to work harder? Saffron's very difficult to harvest. Or was he just telling me to have lunch at Safran House on Gerbergasse Street? You never know with ferrymen.

The Safran House belongs to a guild that dates back to the Middle Ages. The guild was an association of people who practiced the same trade. Each guild had a coat of arms. There were wig makers, pharmacists, glove makers and plumbers. At one time there were 20 guilds in Basel. Safran House was and still is the home of the spice dealers. The building was originally put up in 1423, and though it has gone through a number of reconstructions, it still has a medieval look. The guild leases space to a restaurant so they can have a good place to eat, and they're kind enough to open it to the public. The menu is primarily Swiss. They have a typical Basel specialty of sautéed salmon on a bed of red cabbage with boiled potatoes. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A hundred years ago there was so much salmon in the Rhine that it was the cheapest food in the neighborhood. People tried to feed it to their servants everyday. Eventually things got so bad or good, depending on your viewpoint, that the government had to pass a law stating that you could only feed salmon to your servants three times a week. 

BURT WOLF: Their house specialty is fondue Bacchus. A bowl of vegetable broth with red wine is kept hot in the center of the table. Wooden skewers with thin slices of veal are dipped into the broth. Two minutes of cooking and the veal is dipped into one of the sauces.

Safran House is right across the street from Basel's marketplace, which is open every morning of the week except Sunday. Farmers and craftsmen come in from the surrounding Swiss countryside, but so do farmers and craftsmen from nearby villages in France and Germany. The market takes place right in front of the Town Hall, which was built in the early 1500s in a style that is known as late Burgundian Gothic. You can tell it's Gothic, because the arches are pointed at the top rather than round. You can tell it's Burgundian because it's like the buildings in the Burgundy region of France. They're brightly colored and covered with painted decoration. It's late, because the guys who built it didn't get here until the Burgundian period was almost over. Inside there is a courtyard with a statue of Munatius Plancus, a Roman general who got here early. He arrived in 44 BC and is given credit for founding the city. Next to Plancus is a fresco that shows Basel's acceptance into the Swiss Confederation.

The stained glass windows in the council chamber represent the states that were part of Switzerland in 1501, which was the year that Basel joined the Confederation. Basel's window shows King Henry II who is always presented with the cathedral in his left hand because he put up the money for it. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1500s, this was the door to Basel's divorce court. If you had a problem with your spouse, you came here and registered your accusation with the authorities.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What's your problem?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: My wife and I have irreconcilable differences! Ahhh!

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Not valid for another 500 years.

BURT WOLF: The carvings on the walls were put there to remind everyone that people are not perfect, as if anyone needed reminding. Ahhh!

Just up the hill is Basel's cathedral. The oldest part of the building dates to the 900s, but most of it was put up during the middle of the 14th century. It's made of red sandstone and has two gothic towers. Near the entrance, there are two statues designed to send a warning. One is the worldly prince, charming up front, but look behind and you will see that he is covered with evil serpents and symbols of corruption. Standing beside the worldly prince is the foolish virgin, unable to see the danger or resist the seducer, as valid a message today as it was 500 years ago.

Basel took part in the Protestant Reformation but with a moderate approach, which helped the city develop its reputation for being tolerant. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When the Protestants of France were forced out by Louis XIV, thousands of them came to Basel. It was a safe city for them and many of them were master weavers and dyers. Their knowledge of the chemistry of weaving and dying formed the basis of the huge chemical companies which are stationed here today. 

BURT WOLF: The cathedral was built on a site that was once a Roman fort. Today it's an elegant 18th century square known as Munsterplatz. 

Basel has the only international tram line in Switzerland. It goes all the way to the Alsace region of France, but I'm only taking it for one stop. Because a favorite stop for me on any tour of Basel is Laeckerli House. Laeckerli is a cookie made with honey, nuts, citrus zest, spices, especially ginger, and a Swiss cherry based liquor called kirsch. It's sweet and chewy and the official cookie of Basel. People have been making Laeckerli since the Middle Ages, and it was brought to Basel by German bakers in the early 1400s. You can buy Laeckerli in a paper cone or in a simple box, but Laeckerli House is famous for its packaging, especially their tins. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the middle of the 1800s, the middle class fell in love with shopping, and packaging became an important way of attracting new customers. Cookie manufacturers with tins became an essential marketing tool. Many of the images were drawn from upper class life. If you couldn't afford the actual object, well, at least you could afford a sense of control. Vroom, vroom, vroom!

BURT WOLF: Some of the cookie tins were also sold through early vending machines. The most popular were the tins shaped as cars, trains, planes and boats, because they made perfect Christmas presents for children. The tins were often manufactured for toy companies who sold them in upscale toy stores during the first season, and during the next year in an after market with cookie makers. Today these are considered to be valuable antiques with collectors paying between 15 and 25,000 dollars for important examples. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Each year, Laeckerli introduces five new models. This year one of them is the traditional Swiss Lake Steamer. The super structure comes off and it's filled with cookies. If I could just hang on to it for about a 100 years, it's going to be worth a fortune. 

BURT WOLF: Along with the tradition of eating Laeckerli cookies, Basel has adopted the custom of a coffee and cake break in the afternoon. One place to observe the practice is the Schiesser Cafe which opened in 1870, and they've got the photographs to prove it. They also have coffee, espresso and cappuccino, teas from England, China and Japan, pastries, apple strudel. They also have Peach Melba.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Peach Melba comes with a great story. It was developed by August Escoffier who at the beginning of the 20th century was Europe's most famous chef, and he developed Peach Melba for Lady Melba who was at the time Europe's most famous singer. Now August loved Lily, and Lily loved Peach Melba. The problem is she loved it so often that she began to put on a little extra weight. To try and repair some of the damage he had done, Escoffier developed Melba Toast. Very thin, small pieces of dried bread, and Lily used them to some advantage in her weight loss program. 

BURT WOLF: There is, however, no Melba Toast on Schiesser’s menu.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The event that turned Basel into a center of creativity and learning got started in 1431. It was a gathering of princes and bishops who had come here to discuss the possibility of reforming the church, and this was a very serious subject and people spoke rather slowly about it. So they ended up staying in Basel and debating the issue for 17 years. 

BURT WOLF: Their need for intellectual support during that period helped establish Switzerland's first university, which in turn helped the development of Basel's paper making and printing industries. All of which helped Basel develop as a center of free thinking. The paper making tradition in Basel goes back to the 1400s when monks started making paper for their illuminated manuscripts. If you'd like to see what the process looked like in the middle of the 1400s, stop into Basel's historic paper mill. Craftsmen have been making paper here for over 500 years. Everything is run off a water-powered mill. Small pieces of rag are mixed with water and pounded into a pulp. 

A form is dipped into a tub filled with the pulp and the water and shaken to produce a thin sheet of pulp. The sheet is removed and placed on to a pile of previously made sheets. The pile of sheets is placed into a press. 25 tons of pressure press out the water. The fibers in the rag intertwine and become a single sheet. Finally each sheet is hung up to dry. Each piece has a watermark that was made by sewing brass wire into the form. The wires thin out the layer of fibers. The thin areas show up as lines when the paper is held against the light. During the Middle Ages, the design in the watermark told you who made the paper. Now that you have paper, you need printing presses. The mill has a few dozen presses, all are classics and some of them date back for hundreds of years. If you want to print a book using some of the earliest methods, this shop can do it for you. And as you would expect, they have a complete binding department. 

When Gutenberg introduced Europe to movable type in the 1400s, information could be reproduced and distributed at a rate that was previously unimaginable. But the ancient art of the scribe continued to flourish right alongside the press.

The sign in front of the tiny shop reads "Scriptorium." Inside, Andreas Schenk practices the craft of calligraphy. He drafts family trees, historic documents and social invitations. He also makes his own inks and cuts his own quills. His work requires over 600 different nibs. Even with the arrival of printing, calligraphers were still in great demand for private letters and formal correspondence. One reason that calligraphy has survived the printing press and the computer is that the calligrapher understands the spirit of the text. He knows why the author chose the words and presents them with an awareness and grace that can never be captured by a machine. On the other hand, there's no spell check.

In terms of awareness and grace, however, the machines of Jean Tinguely are an exception. Tinguely was born in Switzerland and lived from 1925 to 1991. He became a leading member of a group of artists who created sculptures that moved. Tinguely's works were designed to counter the traditional concept of art that just stood still. And he poked fun at modern society by using unconventional materials. One of the best examples of his inventive spirit is the fountain in front of the Municipal Theater of Basel. Nine metallic sculptures in perpetual motion. In 1996, a museum completely devoted to his work was designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta and built alongside the Rhine River. He also believed that the onlookers should take part in the art. Many of his works need to be turned on by the viewer before they start moving.

And once he got his sculptures to move, he decided that they should also make sounds. The exhibition rooms are laid out according to the stages of the artist's life. On the ground floor in a huge room is the Grosse Meta Maxi-Maxi Utopia, a larger than life sculpture that represents a walk-in dream world. Tinguely wanted to create a sculpture that people could travel through where there were things to play with. He wanted them to forget that they were in a sculpture and just move about in a happy space, and that's just the feeling you get from being inside it.

Before we get out of this Tinguely sculpture or leave Basel, I'd like to take another look at the Fasnacht Festival. Clearly this is the local version of carnival--critical, artistic and challenging. But it's also polite and tame and structured, just like Tinguely's sculpture, and that's how you can tell they're Swiss. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I'm Burt Wolf.