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The Swiss city where even fun is serious

Hardworking Basel is one of Switzerland’s richest cities. But if you dip beneath its surface, you discover the beguiling contradictions that make Basel serious fun.
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Until 18:00, Basel is all business. It’s not somewhere you can waltz into a meeting five minutes late – not in this Swiss city whose major industries, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, are all about precision and control.

But when the workday is done, Basel quickly reveals its other, pleasure-loving face.

In summer, hundreds of professionals stroll down to the banks of the Rhine and strip down to their skivvies. Then, they shove their business wear into a waterproof backpack known as a wickelfisch (“fish pack”), jump into the river and let its swift current carry them home.

Andreas Ruby, director of the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, calls it the city’s “liquid form of flâneuring”.

“Sometimes you’ll see groups of people chatting together on the river like old friends. In fact, they’re strangers who’ve happened to catch the same current,” said Ruby.

The bank of the Rhine also functions as Basel’s de facto beach (Credit: Paul Clemence)
The bank of the Rhine also functions as Basel’s de facto beach (Credit: Paul Clemence)

“A lot of love stories have begun on the Rhine,” he added, with a glint of mischief in his eye.

Located at the exact point where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, Basel, which has a population nearing 200,000, straddles a particularly pastoral bend of the Rhine. From the towers of its Gothic cathedral, you can look north past emerald-green farms and vineyards to see both France’s Vosges Mountains and Germany’s Black Forest.

A lot of love stories have begun on the Rhine
At first glance, it seems a pleasant, if unexciting, place to do business. You might even be tempted to stay on for a quiet weekend exploring Basel’s historical centre, a tidy hodgepodge of the medieval and modern. But if you dip beneath its surface, you discover the beguiling contradictions that make Basel serious fun.

Appropriate to a city with deep Calvinist roots, a lot of that fun literally happens underground. In basements along the back alleys of the historical centre, groups of revellers called Cliques gather month after month to prepare for Basel’s raucous, 72-hour Carnival celebration.

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