(james benedict brown) on the road

Take the SBB/CFF/FSS to Bâle/Basel/Basle

Posted in Uncategorized by James Benedict Brown on 20 May, 2007


I am a brilliant procrastinator. That is to say that I am terrible at procrastinating important work, which by definition probably means I am actually a very good procrastinator. I think. It’s a confusing word, regardless.

On Saturdays I generally have every excuse not to work, because I’ve just spent the two busiest days of the week presenting and being ‘corrected’ on my two design projects. Strasbourg students generally only take one with a handful of smaller classes; me, I just wanted to be different. So to profit from my first official day off of the week, I headed south to Bâle in Switzerland. You might know it by it’s German name of Basel, or possibly the oddly misspelt and anglophonic ‘Basle’.

Switzerland is, as everyone delights in explaining, the exception to the European norm. It is not a member of the European Union and yet is completely surrounded by it. It has maintained almost two centuries of officially recognised neutrality. Despite this and the country’s policy of non-participation in armed conflict (the last one was in 1815) there are as many as 3 million firearms in circulation, kept largely by those men who are in or who have finished their obligatory national service in the military. Every member of the population has a place reserved for them in government maintained nuclear bunkers, just in case the armed population doesn’t ward off any malignant state that tries it on with Switzerland.

Under a beautiful blue sky I set off on my day trip by train, hopping on board the next train that came past on the busy mainline that connects Strasbourg with Colmar, Mulhouse and Bâle. When it showed up in the station, it turned out that my train was the daily international Eurocity train ‘Vauban’, which connects Brussels with Brig (in southern Switzerland) via Strasbourg and Bâle. An angry looking French locomotive was pulling a mixed rake of carriages from Belgium and Switzerland. Both Belgium and Switzerland are multilingual countries: in addition to a number of regional dialects, Swiss has three official languages. In big letters on the side of the Swiss part of the train was the acronym of the national rail company – the rather snappy title SBB-CFF-FSS. That’s the same basic acronym repeated in the three languages (German: SBB for Schweizerische Bundesbahnen; French: CFF for Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses and Italian: FFS for Ferrovie federali svizzere). Despite having to deal with a similarly multilingual population, the Belgian national railway makes do with a much more pragmatic and probably cost effective logo: a big and slightly floral letter ‘B’.


I was in Bâle for just an afternoon – but more than enough time to visit the superb Bayerler Foundation in Reihen, a leafy suburb in the north-eastern (German) of the city. This is one of Switzerland’s most popular art galleries – a small but wondrous modern art collection that is supplemented by regular shows that bring together works from around the world, the current show being of the works of Edvard Munch. I’d been recommended to visit the building on the strength of its roof details, but I was most impressed with the rest of the ensemble. It would have been a plum commission for the international-superstar-architect Renzo Piano: an almost blank canvas to build an art gallery in the grounds of a large house on the outskirts of the city. The building is both strikingly interesting and calmly muted. Four rough marble walls run the length of the building, breaking into columns at each end over a terrace or pool. Inside daylight is filtered down through a steel and fabric roof structure, and plain white walls float above an unvarnished (birchwood?) floor. The necessary ventilation slots in the floor have become feature elements, designed as continuous strips of smaller conversely laid wooden slats along the lengths of the room (with four slots between each of the big supporting walls). It’s certainly a dreamy space, and the Munch exhibition is well worth visiting if you find yourself in Bâle.

After soaking up about as much sun as my pale skin can manage (over the course of about five minutes) in the foundation’s garden, and having explored the exterior of the building, I returned to town on one of the city’s green streetcars.


At Mezzeplatz two games of chess were in full swing on a shady side of the square. The players and a disjointed group of self appointed experts of the game were watching. The wide open streets and more modern German half the city seemed to suit these games of tactic and symbolic subterfugeI descended from the tram a few stops early and watched the games progress, before descending the bustling Clarastrasse to the Mittlere Rheinbrüke over the mighty Rhine, re-entering the predominantly French part of the city. I climbed into the old town, stopping to catch my breath in shady corners and to look down on the bridge below. In the grand old square beside the city’s cathedral, a youth choir visiting the city for a festival was performing; ice creams were being sold from hand carts; a game of pétanque was progressing leisurely on the sandy soil beneath the trees.


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