I’m staying in Basel tonight, at a hotel near the Swiss Railway Station. Basel is in Switzerland, so you might expect all the railway stations to be Swiss, but Basel is close enough to France and Germany that you can travel there by tram, so, on the other side of town, there is a German Railway Station. Even the Swiss Railway Station harbours a small corner that is actually a French Railway Station.
This is a town where languages mix to create something unique. People say “Merci Viemal” (“Thank you” in French, “Very Much” in German). It is not French or German but a special kind of Swiss.
Way back in the last century, I lived here for a while and I fell in love with it, but not so much in love to keep me from moving to Lac Léman in the French-speaking part of Switzerland when the job needed me to.
Now, when work calls me here, I like to stay near the Basel SBB Railway Station. This area was completely refurbished a few years ago. The railway station, the hotels and the tram station all got a face-lift. They are now quite modern without losing their connection with the past.
This trip, I’m staying at the Hotel Schweizerhof, which has been updated to a clean, efficient, business hotel with grand reception areas. As I walked back from Da Roberto’s, one of my favourite Italian restaurants, even though it is next to the porn cinema, I was caught once again by the beauty of this area at night.
In many cities, railway stations and tram stops are places to be avoided at night. They have been ceded to vice, violence, drugs and the dispossessed. In Basel, the railway station is magical island of white light that seems to cast a spell on all who pass through it, making them feel both safe and cheerful.
Trams rumble through Basel from early morning to late at night. They are clean, punctual, cheap and used by everybody. Everyone who stays in a hotel gets a ticket that lets them travel for free on any tram anywhere.
Trams carry hundreds of people each. I think that part of the atmosphere of the City arises from the fact that its residents bump along peacefully beside each other in trams every day.
Trams give way to no one, not even pedestrians. At night they seems like whales on wheels, pushing through the street towards me.
The human scale of this place, the quite grandeur of the architecture, mellowed by years of practical use and rendered beautiful by skillful lighting, always lifts my spirits. I feel at peace here, even though I am a stranger amongst strangers, returning to my single room after eating accompanied only by Joshilyn Jackson’s (truly splendid) “Backseat Saints”.
I wish all cities could find a way to be like this but I’ll settle for coming here from time to time and reminding myself that sometime civilization is about the art of living in peaceful beauty and that the real nature of luxury is learning to take that for granted.