By Bob Bestor

We continue to plough new ground with our first report on Basel, Switzerland's second largest city. It turns out to be an easygoing city with more going for it than almost any town its size.

The real secret of Basel, we were told by a native shortly after our arrival, is that it is the most liberal, least "uptight" town in Switzerland. "Alternative life-styles" are accepted without so much as a single lifted eyebrow. Though the description sounded a little like San Francisco, it turned out not to be. We should have known. San Francisco, or "The City" as it prefers to call itself, is the undefeated, untied world champion of "alternative life-style." Unconventional in Basel is attending the symphony without a tie.

In fact, the two cities are not at all alike. Though only a quarter the size, Basel has more and better museums than San Francisco, a better zoo and twice as many symphony orchestras. Most San Franciscans fear riding their city's spooky, graffiti-ridden, catch-as-catch-can bus system. In Basel, 40% of the population regularly buys season passes on the Trämli, which runs at six to 10-minute intervals during the day and every 15 minutes at night. Basel has three railway stations; San Francisco none. In 1460, when the most important structure on what was to become San Francisco's Nob Hill was a teepee, Basel already had a university.

But enough of that. Since they have virtually nothing in common, Basel and San Francisco shouldn't be measured against each other.

The comparisons do, however, demonstrate the cultural richness and scope of this medium-sized town (population 200,000) on a bend in the Rhein where three countries - Switzerland, Germany and France - meet. (It is said that the employees of the Sandoz pharmaceutical company must go through French customs to get to the company tennis courts.) In addition to its two symphony orchestras, Basel has 13 theaters, 100 galleries and a beautifully preserved old town overlooked by an 800-year-old twin-spired Gothic cathedral.

There are 28 museums, the most important being the highly-regarded Kunstmuseum (Fine Arts Museum) with thousands of works by such heavyweights as Rembrandt, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Miro, Ernst, Klee and others. The 27 other museums also have much to offer. See Luther's chalice at the Barfüsserkirche, ever-changing exhibitions of modern art at the Kunsthalle, Aubusson tapestries at the Kirschgarten Museum, Beethoven's Flute at the Collection of Musical Instruments, a four-seat bicycle in the Fire Brigade Museum, the "beheaded prisoner" in the Anatomical Museum or the collection of more than 30,000 posters at the Film Museum. You may want to purchase a three-day pass for 23 Sfr. ($20) good for entry to most of the museums.

As someone who has no particular interest in or knowledge of animals, I was nonetheless captivated by the Basel Zoo. The 32-acre site is lush with vegetation which gives the visitor at least somewhat the illusion of seeing the animals in their natural state. There are nearly 6,000 different species from five continents.

A path winds among the various venues, there are picnic facilities and a special children's zoo. The gorilla house is equipped with tiered benches for those who wish to watch these fascinating primates for an extended period. The Zoologischer Garten Basel is a "must see."

Obviously, Basel's geographical position makes it easy for those who want to duck into France and Germany on day-trips. Freiburg, in the Black Forest, is just 72 kilometers (45 miles) to the north and up the west side of the Rhein, France's Alsace region is also close.

A highly recommended nearby excursion is to Augusta Raurica (Augst Roman Ruins), in the two villages of Augst and Kaiseraugst, about seven miles east of the town. Here you will see the remains of the oldest (15 B.C.) Roman settlement on the Rhein. Its theater, which held 8,000 spectators, is the largest Roman ruin in Switzerland.

Finally, Fasnacht, a three-day carnival/bacchanal is, we are told, one of the wildest blowouts in Europe. It begins with a 4 a.m. (not a misprint) parade on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday, February 26 in 1996. Hotel rooms, of course, are at a premium.

For unconventional, uninhibited behavior, Fasnacht in Basel may not match Halloween night in San Francisco, but if you get bored you still have all those museums.

Hotels

Hotel Drei Könige

(Editor's Choice)

The waters of the Rhein lap at the foundation of the "Three Kings," Basel's leading hotel and its only five-star property with "old world" ambiance. It may, in fact, be the oldest luxury hotel in Europe, full of old tapestries, gilt-framed mirrors, sparkling chandeliers, trompe-l'oeil and objet d'art. It is the place to stay in Basel and priced accordingly.

• Address: Hotel Drei Könige am Rhein Blumenrain 8, CH-4001 Basel
* Phone: 061/261 5252
* Fax: 061/261 2153
* Location: Central, Altstadt, left bank of Rhein
* Rooms: 81
* Proprietor: Jacques Pernet
* Prices: Singles 255 to 355 Sfr. ($226 -$314), doubles 420 to 590 Sfr. ($372-$522). Breakfast is an additional 29 Sfr./$26 per day.
* Facilities: Terrace restaurant overlooking Rhein, air-conditioning, nonsmoking rooms
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage 25 sfr. ($18)
* Rating: Excellent 16/20 G

Swissôtel Le Plaza

Le Plaza is physically connected to the convention center, about a 15-minute walk from the "old town." Though virtually all alike, the renovated guestrooms, which open to exceptionally wide, well-lit corridors, are the best we saw in Basel. The hotel offers a weekend special at 245 Sfr. ($217) per night for a double room with breakfast, a bottle of champagne, free parking, late checkout and is the best value in town. During the week, prices are much higher.

Even if you don't stay at Le Plaza, stop by for a drink beneath the life-size wooden horse that sits astride the lobby bar. Late in the evening it is not uncommon for well-oiled, visiting firemen to attempt to mount and ride it.

• Address: Swissôtel Le Plaza Messeplatz 25, CH-4021 Basel
* Phone: 061/692 3333
* Fax: 061/692 5633
* Location: Right bank, at convention center, 15-20 minute walk from Altstadt
* Rooms: 219
* Proprietor: Joe Gehrer
* Prices: Singles 233 to 336 Sfr. ($206 -$297), doubles 22 to 469 Sfr. ($285-$415)
* Facilities: Restaurant, bar, indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam bath, solarium, nonsmoking rooms
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Four specially equipped rooms
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage
* Rating: Excellent 16/20

Hotel St. Gotthard

(Editor's Choice)

This particularly appealing hotel, across the street from the railway station, is convenient for train travelers. The old town is about a 15-minute walk. The neighborhood is busy and just a little tacky. The hotel though is a gem, easily the best value except for the weekend rate offered by Le Plaza in town. The bright and inviting reception and lobby area are decorated with oriental rugs and arresting pieces of African art.

• Address: Hotel St. Gotthard, Centralbahnstrasse 13, CH-4002 Basel
* Phone: 061/271 52 50
* Fax: 061/271 52 14
* Location: Near rail station, 15 minutes walk from Altstadt
* Rooms: 63
* Proprietor: Albert Geyer-Arel
* Prices: Singles 165 to 220 Sfr. ($146 -$195), doubles 220 to 280 Sfr. ($195-$248)
* Facilities: Nonsmoking rooms, no restaurant
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Yes
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage 20 sfr. ($18)
* Rating: Above Average 15/20 G

Kunst-Hotel Teufelhof

The Teufelhof, in what was once a very large, turn-of-the-century middle-class house and stable located on the ancient circle of walls that once surrounded the city, is listed in Michelin as a restaurant mit Zim (with rooms). Though running a one-star Michelin restaurant is serious stuff, Der Teufelhof's owners have taken a more lighthearted approach to the hotel part of their business. The eight simple guestrooms with hardwood floors, white walls and simple furnishings are viewed as "empty canvases" and periodically eight different artists are commissioned to decorate them. The results are fascinating, but rather spare and hardly luxurious. The effect is in a range from avant garde to slightly bizarre. There are murals, mobiles, sculptures, paintings and high-tech lighting, but no couches or comfortable chairs. Each bathroom is equipped with a heated towel rack and hairdryer.

We liked Numbers seven and eight, cozy, garret-like top floor rooms with exposed beams, dormer windows and slanting ceilings. One drawback for all rooms is that there is no lift and one must negotiate at least two flights of steep stairs.

The Teufelhof is also known for the small - 120 seats - but busy theater located within the walls of its rambling structure.

The whole package, main dining room, Weinstube, theater and the eight guestrooms have been meticulously and imaginatively restored and the pieces of art carefully chosen. Note, for example, the clever pitchfork (Der Teufelhof means "the devil's house") wall sculptures incorporating images of famous people.

For the flexible traveler who appreciates new ideas, even if they are a little quirky, Der Teufelhof will be fun.

• Address: Kunst-Hotel Teufelhof Leonhardsgraben 47, CH-4051 Basel
* Phone: 061/691 1010
* Fax: 061/691 1004
* Location: Central, Altstadt
* Rooms: 8
* Proprietor: Monica & Dominique Thommy-Kneschaurek
* Prices: Singles 190 to 210 Sfr. ($168 -$186), doubles 245 to 280 Sfr. ($217-$248)
* Facilities: Michelin one-star restaurant plus Weinstube, theater
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: Never
* Rating: Above Average 14/20

Hotel Mérian

On the other side of the river from the Drei Könige, just over the Mittlere Rheinbrücke, the first and for many centuries the only bridge over the Rhein between Lake Constance and the sea, is the four-star Hotel Mérian. Its guestrooms - many of them on the river side - are modern but perhaps a little sterile.

The hotel's fish restaurant is well-regarded and has an interesting nautical decor (if tables in the bar are put together jigsaw style they form a fish shape.)

The welcome and service from Bodo and Ursula Skrobucha is both warm and efficient. Ask one of them to show you the stained glass in the elegant downstairs meeting rooms of the historic "Three Honorable Companies" (ancient trade guilds).

• Address: Hotel Mérian am Rhein Rheingasse 2, CH-4058 Basel
* Phone: 061/681 0000
* Fax: 061/681 1101
* Location: Central, just over bridge from the Altstadt on right bank of Rhein
* Rooms: 60
* Proprietor: Bodo & Ursula Skrobucha
* Prices: Singles 150 to 200 Sfr. ($133 -$177), doubles 195 to 270 Sfr. ($173-$239)
* Facilities: Restaurant, bar, nonsmoking rooms
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Yes
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage
* Rating: Above Average 13/20

Hotel Admiral

Across the Messeplatz from Le Plaza, the Admiral also derives much of its business from the town's convention activities and prices fluctuate accordingly.

Rooms are decent, but not special. On the roof is a heated outdoor swimming pool and sunbathing area.

• Address: Hotel Admiral, Rosentalstrasse 5, CH-4021 Basel
* Phone: 061/691 7777
* Fax: 061/691 7789
* Location: Right bank, near Convention Center, 10-15 minute walk from Altstadt
* Rooms: 130
* Proprietor: Ernst Rmer
* Prices: Singles 140 to 195 Sfr. ($124 -$173), doubles 200 to 280 Sfr. ($177-$248)
* Facilities: Restaurant, bar, rooftop swimming pool, nonsmoking rooms
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage, 18 Sfr. ($16)
* Rating: Average 11/20

Hotel Steinenschanz

Accommodations are basic, but prices may be the lowest in town. Cable TV, including CNN. Ask for a room overlooking the garden.

• Address: Hotel Steinenschanze Steinengraben 69, CH-4051 Basel
* Phone: 061/272 5353
* Fax: 061/272 4573
* Location: On busy thoroughfare about a half-mile southwest of the Altstadt
* Rooms: 47
* Proprietor: Ruth Schwendener
* Prices: Singles 100 to 135 Sfr. ($88 -$119), doubles 135 to 180 Sfr. ($119-$159)
* Facilities: No restaurant
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Public garage
* Rating: Average 8/20

Hotel Basilisk

Good location on a tree-lined street, and the corner terrace is no doubt a fine place for lunch or a drink on a nice day, but the tiny reception area and the guestrooms are a little shabby and the furniture has too many dings. The hotel is clean but simply not up to standard.

• Address: Hotel Basilisk Klingentalstrasse 1, CH-4005 Basel
* Phone: 061/681 4666
* Fax: 061/681 4145
* Location: Right bank of Rhein, five minutes walk from Altstadt
* Rooms: 53
* Proprietor: Family Cavegn-Krucker
* Prices: Singles 140 to 160 Sfr. ($124 -$142), doubles 210 to 240 Sfr. ($186-$212)
* Facilities: Bistro-style restaurant with outdoor service
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Yes
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Hotel garage, 15 Sfr. ($13)
* Rating: Adequate 7/20

Food

Restaurant Der Teufelhof

(Editor's Choice)

The Michelin one-star kitchen at Der Teufelhof turns out some of the best and most imaginative food we've come across in the past couple of years. It is served in two venues; a coat-and-tie upstairs dining room and a brasserie-style Weinstube on the floor below. We chose the relaxed, less expensive Weinstube. There, you will feel comfortable in jeans, and, in fact, if you just want to have a beer or dessert that's o.k., too.

English is spoken by most servers and the welcome is very warm.

The wine list is extensive with many Swiss offerings and some of the greatest wines of France. But what we really liked is the inclusion of lesser-known but high-quality bottles, mostly French, at fairly reasonable prices. For example, we drank 4 dl (at 7.50 Sfr./$6.60 per dl) of Côtes de Duras from Cahors, a region adjoining Bordeaux. Tasted blind it could be mistaken for a more expensive chateaux-bottled Bordeaux.

The Weinstube's decor like Der Teufelhof's guestrooms and, for that matter like its fancier upstairs restaurant, where the meals are about twice as expensive is simple: hardwood floors, plain wood tables, white walls and a small bar. The eclectic clientèle seems to be the same mix of students and hip, well-heeled, business and professional types one finds everywhere in this sort of restaurant. We have been in many a trendy bistro, however, where the ambiance was very au courant but the food wasn't. Not so with Der Teufelhof. It is what is on the plate and in the glass that lifts it above pretenders.

The very first course let us know we were in for an extraordinary dining experience. In the smooth elegance of Betesuppe, pureed beets swirled with cream, floated Meerrettich Ravioli, delicate little pasta pillows subtly flavored with horseradish, that gave the soup a welcome heartiness on a cold night.

Kalbsmedallions in Pfeffer-Rahmsauce were little rounds of veal that appeared to have been sautéed on one side, coated with batter on the other, then sautéed on the batter side and served with the peppery reduction sauce.

An Italian-inspired Lammpiccata mit Rosmarin-Thymianjus, like the veal, was one of those straight-from-the-skillet dishes that are a bistro hallmark. The rosemary and thyme sauce carried a hint of lemon and a scattering of capers. What came with these two dishes demonstrates the kitchen's attention to detail. No just throwing a few steamed veggies on the plate here. With the veal were sautéed celery and tomato and half a potato that had been boiled, sliced, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and then broiled. Served with the lamb were sautéed scallions and unstemmed baby carrots bathed in their own sauce.

The highlight dessert was a rhubarb soufflé with praline ice cream.

Dinner for two, including wine, beer and mineral water, was 157 Sfr. ($139).

Kunst-Hotel Teufelhof Leonhardsgraben 47, CH-4051 Basel, phone 061/691 1010, fax 061/691 1004. Expensive.
* Rating: Excellent 17/20 G

Hotel Rôtisserie des Rois

The Hotel Drei Könige's Rôtisserie des Rois offers the sort of fine dining one expects in a five-star Swiss hotel in the German-speaking regions of the country; traditional dishes of high quality ingredients, beautifully prepared with great attention to detail.

For example, five perfectly grilled lamb chops were enhanced with a thyme flavored reduction sauce; a traditional appetizer of Lachs (lightly smoked salmon) came with sweet onions, capers, toast and a whipped sour cream and horseradish sauce; breast of duck with thin slices of sautéed apple was also a winner and a first course of the ubiquitous Spargel (large, white asparagus) was made more intriguing than usual by a touch of orange in the white sauce. A dessert of fresh fruit and rhubarb sorbet was straightforward and satisfying.

A meal on the riverside terrace is an especially pleasant experience.

Dinner for two was about 210 Sfr. ($186).

Les Trois Rois Blumenrain 8, CH-4001 Basel, phone 061/261 5252, fax 061/261 2153. Very expensive.
* Rating: Excellent 16/20

Basel Info

Population: 200,000

Altitude: 273 meters - 896 feet

Distances to...

Kilometers/Miles
* Bern 100/62
* Frankfurt 331/207
* Geneva 259/162
* Munich 399/249
* Paris 553/346
* Strasbourg 145/91
* Venice 605/378
* Vienna 830/519
* Zürich 85/53

Tourist Information

Verkehrsbro Basel
Schifflnde 5
CH-4001 Basel
Phone: 061/261 5050
Fax: 061/261 5944
Tourist information stations are also at the SBB railway station and at the N2/A5 Autobahn rest stop Basel/Weil north of the city.

Key Phone Numbers

* Swiss Rail 061/157 3333 (1.40 Sfr./$1.24 per minute)
* German Rail 061/691 5511
* French Rail 061/271 5033
* Hotel Reservations 061/686 2630

Tram and Bus

Buses and trams travel throughout the day at 6, 7 1/2 and 10-minute intervals during the day and every 15 minutes at night. Individual trips start at 1.20 Sfr. ($1.06). Day tickets are 6.60 Sfr. ($5.85).

City Tour

• A 95-minute guided tour of the city departs Saturday and Sunday mornings from the front of the SBB train station and the Hotel Victoria. The cost is 18 Sfr. ($16) per person.

• An alternative to the group tour is five self-guided walks each beginning at the Marktplatz and marked by color-coded signs. A free tourist office brochure briefly describes the routes which vary in length from 30 to 90 minutes. Three of the five are wheelchair accessible. A good book to accompany the walks is Basel fotogen available for 22 Sfr. ($18) at bookstores and the tourist office.

Discount Hotel Package

The Basel Tourist Board books weekend packages that offer decent value. Two nights hotel accommodations with breakfast, plus free use of public transport, free admission to the town's 28 museums, free city map and literature, a half-price city tour and reduced rates to several other attractions, goes for from 356 Sfr. ($315) in a two-star hotel to 552 Sfr. ($488) in five-star lodgings.

November 1995