Monday, 26 June 2017

Self-Washing Bathrooms (When Can We Get One!?)

We had such a great day on the 'green walk' - a term I'll explain later. I've tried to write about it all, but it simply won't fit into one post.

Outside the gardens near Basel University

It was on this day that we first went looking for a public toilet. (I know. I write about the oddest things.)  Jane had a map that indicated one could be found somewhere near the old wall that indicated a medieval city boundary. We wandered the length of it, finally finding someone to ask and of course were directed to the other end, and around the corner. 


It was our first of several experiences with the automatic, self-cleaning toilets in Basel. I didn't take a photo of that one, but found myself definitely admiring some of the others we found.

Note the silly sign on the left...urinals apparently...

Though not all were, a good number of the public toilets in Basel were of the self-cleaning variety. However they were routinely clean, in good working order, supplied with warm water, soap and hand dryers and FREE. What's not to love?

Well, actually, the tricky part was knowing what button to push when. We were all skittish about the possibility of being locked in and washed ourselves! Still, they were brilliant and made me appreciate Basel all the more. Besides, we always seemed to get a good laugh whenever we visited these contraptions.

Then there was a story about the day I stayed home and Chris stood waiting patiently in the pouring rain outside a loo in the Munsterplatz, waiting for the red light to turn green. Bill and I passed 'Chris's Box' on the last day, after Jane and Chris had got a train to Zurich. At Bill's suggestion, I photographed the box in Chris's honour, before we each availed ourselves of the facility.

"Chris's box" in Munsterplatz

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Basel Münster

We did several walking tours of Basel, alternating with days out on the train. Over the course of the trip it became apparent that Basel isn't that large, at least not the touristy area. 

This replica is wonderful in itself to see, but consider that a blind person could
touch it and experience the beauty of this building.

Eventually we were covering old ground, but with a different loop added here or there. Never mind, I found loads to love.

Chris is fascinated by churches and cathedrals. Jane often remarks that he disappears into any he can and she never knows when he'll emerge. I've no idea why this is, I wouldn't have said he was particularly religious, but they grab him for some reason. 

I'm lukewarm on them myself, though they can sometimes draw me. I don't deny that churches are for many a place for seeking spiritual commune, but for me they also represent temporal power and control. I think that my travels in Europe have highlighted this aspect for me and I feel the principle applies elsewhere in the world. Still, I do love architecture and this building was very 'romantic' and 'gothic' (terms from Wikipedia's description, link below).

We didn't really go into the church, just into the 'open bits'; the actual name for this is a cloister. Even though there were plenty of tourists around it still had a very serene atmosphere.

I briefly looked at the history of this impressive building:built in 1019; destroyed by earthquake in 1356, rebuilt by 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic style; originally a Catholic church, now a Reformed Protestant church. More about the history of Basel's Minster on Wonderful Wikipedia.

Curious about the name 'Reformed Protestant' I did a tiny bit of digging. It turns out that 'reformation' doesn't only apply to English King Henry VIII's drive for a male heir. 

I hadn't appreciated that Martin Luther lived at the same time and of course he also rebelled against the Catholic church, but for very different reasons. If you're interested in this sort of thing you can read more about those two men at this link. The contrast between them is somehow eloquent.

As a younger person I naively thought of religion and history as separate subjects, but of course that is ridiculous; the two are completely intertwined. Come to think of it, this hasn't changed, has it? It's not just history, it's current affairs.  

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Basel, Basil, Basel-Stadt, Basilisk

So enough of the pretty. As I've said before I followed along on this trip with no plans or agenda, almost sleep-walking at first. However, I woke up after a few days. It wasn't the food - we never ate out, but cooked in the flat - it wasn't the spectacular landscape either. It was something between history and architecture that shook me out of my submissive haze. There were things to figure out and I love nothing more than researching puzzles. So here are some of the answers I found.

Is it just a coincidence, the similarity between basil, the herb, and Basel, the city?

No coincidence at all: think 'royal'. 

The city name was originally founded by the Romans in the year 44 as Robur (from Latin roburetum which means 'oak grove'. It was renamed Basilia (from the Greek word basilea, meaning 'royal' in 374 when it became the 'royal' fortress of Valentinian I, often considered the last great western emporer.

So that makes sense.

According to etymologyonline, the herb comes from late Middle English, from Old French basile, by way of medieval Latin, from Greek basilikon, the neuter form of basilikos 'royal' or (from Wikipedia) 'king'. 

It's less clear why basil is considered 'royal'. One theory is that it came to be associated with the Feast of the Cross celebrating when St Helena, mother of Constantine I, found the True Cross. Another is more general, that it may have been used in some royal medicine or beauty treatment.

Whatever the reason, I definitely like the name basil a lot better than its other moniker: St Joseph's Wort.

What is this funny symbol we keep seeing everywhere?

Turns out this is the symbol, the "Basel-stadt", is the blazon (a heraldic symbol), for the city (stadt in German) of Basel. It depicts the top of a staff originally carried by the Bishops of Basel and dates back to the 9th century. I learned a new term, 'crosier' but apparently this staff is not a proper crosier, I just thought the photo on the link looked cool.

Why are there so many dragons on street lights, water fountains, etc.?

Actually, they are (as you may have guessed from the title) basilisks, not dragons. A basilisk has many of the same features of a dragon but its head is more like that of a rooster, with a beak and a comb on its head. That comb, being compared to a crown, causes it to be called a 'little king', hence the name (basilisks apparently aren't that large). They are sometimes referred to as a 'worm' somehow hatched by a rooster from the egg of a serpent...doesn't really bear thinking about.

Of course many of us hear about basilisks and dragons and think of the genius of J. K. Rowling. Turns out there are other Harry Potter-isms associated with Switzerland, but I will leave that for another post.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Ferry to Interlocken

Of course the scenery on the lake, Thunersee, was spectacular. Snow covered mountains aren't new to me - I saw them out my kitchen window in Salt Lake City. 

That said, there is something about being on an enormous lake beneath these majestic (trite, but the best word nonetheless) mountains. I confess it got me.

In Salt Lake City some oik has built a house on the ridge since I left and I'm afraid it has spoilt the skyline for me. I wish him ill every time I think of it.

The Alps are so steep and the dangers of avalanche so great, I like to think they are somehow protected from major development for the time being. 

I'm sad to report I did see an enormous hotel on the top of one ridge. We were also appalled to see the occasional strip mine and in one place there was a cement factory on the side of the lake. So perhaps we can't take their beauty for granted.

The ferry stopped at a series of villages along the lakeside. 

We have a ferry not far from our house that runs across the River Tyne, taking folks from North Shields to South Shields. People use it to commute to work. Another ferry just a bit further on takes people overnight to Amsterdam.

We loved the houses with a different sort of garage.

Those seem a whole different kind of ferry to this one. I didn't see a single commuter type, though I could be mistaken, nor any suitcases. 

There were loads of people on the front of the boat where Chris positioned us.  One group was of of three Germans (I think) of the motorbike/ Goth/ ugly pursuasion, one woman and two men.

One of the guys had the large studs in his ear lobe, countless studs in his face and a load of tats and his visage disturbed Jane a bit.

Each to his own is my view, but I was pleased to have them behind me where the didn't spoil my view. 

They drank beer, smoked some pot (which amused us) and quite a few cigarettes - I prefer the smell of marijuana over tobacco any day. 

The road you don't want to know you are on...and we wondered about ever after.

They also played music, which to our amazement wasn't too awful. I've no idea if you would call it indie or garage or soft grunge, but it was palatable. I wondered if it would upset them that we liked their music.

Eventually we came to a narrow place between the two lakes (Lake Thuner and Lake Brientz) and we got off at the town of Interlocken (between lakes, funny enough). From there we caught a train back to Basel. I even knew my way back to the apartment by then.

Snow covered Alps, great rivers with surfing, complicated rooftops, glimpses of peoples' gardens or balconies, pretty cats, old churches - and sunshine! It was a great day out. 

Friendly people!

We did a fair amount of walking with lots of sitting in between. However, I decided I would pace myself. 

The next day I stayed home and put my feet up. 

Monday, 5 June 2017


Jane did some research to make sure we would be able to get home from our wandering route. After our adventures in Thun, we caught a train to Spiez (spee-ETZ), a ferry to Interlocken (in between lakes) and then a train back to Basel. 


Our 3-day train tickets were real value for money, covering ferries as well as trains (including a special sort). 

Chris and I wondered what that white bubble thing was.
Bill said it was a skylight for an underground garage.

Public transport on the Continent is subsidised by public money and so it is much cheaper there than in Britain. Ironically, much of Britain's transport is European owned. Our local Metro system is owned and run by a German company now.  

Bill was right.

So we help subsidise their public transport. I think it serves Britain right for selling out. Seems to me we follow tappy lappy behind the US in spite of being the size of a single US State with a fifth of the population; not to mention being 4,400 miles across the Atlantic vs 33 miles over the Dover Strait. (Is getting more politic one of those ageing things? I find myself thinking a lot these days about things that would have bored me rigid as a younger person. Or is it just that we live in an interesting time?)

We enjoyed our walk from the train station down to the ferry landing in Spietz. As usual, Chris and I lagged behind snooping at people's houses. 
I've always adored balconies: they hint at weather permitting an outdoor life.

I carried my crochet (brightly coloured dishcloths) and then my knitting (child's cardigan) nearly everywhere on this trip. (I recently discovered that 10 June is 'National Knit in Public Day'). It served me well on the train journeys and also on the ferry. 

I still took a stupid number of photos. I figured if I can read Italian subtitles on the telly and knit I would manage to look at scenery alright. However, I can report that crochet traves better: one hook and one loop vs two needles and many stitches. I got a lot more crochet done than knitting.

I know I sound a boring, ungrateful old git, but much as I enjoy travel, it comes at a cost beyond money: I lose time at home to nurture my projects, exercise routines fall away, healthy eating is a greater challenge. I do appreciate seeing other places and enjoying their sights, but I miss out on events I would otherwise attend here at home. That's just life.

Anyhow, I packed several craft projects for the evenings or other sitting times and I didn't regret it one bit. I felt I was getting the best of both worlds: home and away. 

It wasn't that far to the ferry, but we just missed a boat. I was going to sleep waiting for the next one, so had a coffee that perked me up.  We never went out to eat with Chris and Jane on this whole trip, but we did get the odd drink or snack in late afternoons to keep us going until dinner time back at the flat. It was cheaper but it was also a fun compromise.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017


Our transport arrangements were very slick on this trip. The flat Bill selected magically included a pass for buses and trams around the city. Surprisingly, our tickets weren't once checked; we just got on and off where ever we wished.

Parts of Switzerland are flat.

Not that I would try it without a ticket. I don't think the authorities would be very lenient, after all, you can afford international travel but not a tram ticket? I don't think so.

Jane and Chris travel long and often, so when they make suggestions I bow to their experience and trust their (mostly) tightwad principles. One of their suggestions was that we buy a train ticket for three days, so see other places in Switzerland besides Basel.

The ticket for consecutive days was cheaper, but Chris suggested splashing out for selected dates to be determined, as we might struggle with three continuous days of extended walking. This was a decision that had to be made prior to arrival in the country.

Chateau (hotel?) in the background; postman on yellow tricycle with trailer!

I went along with buying the slightly more expensive ticket but still dreaded those days out, thinking of my poor aching feet and legs. Chris and Jane can walk all day and all night, I think. I sometimes wonder if they imagine me still the marathon runner of my distant past. Bill is secretary of a long-distance walking organisation for heaven's sake. Fortunately for me (selfish to say it), Bill has a knee injury and needed to take it easy so I was able to walk at a comfortable pace! We were all tired when we returned to the flat, but I was able to really enjoy the travel days, not dread them.

We trained, trammed, ferried and even bus-ed, just to cover all the transport options, as much as we walked. I love public transport and wouldn't ever wish to do without it again.  

On our first day of train travel we got the train to Thun (pronounced Toon). We were surprised that so much of Switzerland was flat, but then the mountains are generally somewhere in the distance. 

We came upon the busy market square. I spotted some walnuts and grabbed a few handfuls. 

Not to eat the nuts - though I expect we will - rather because the shells make a great natural dye for fabric that I've seen makes a lovely shade of taupe, one of my favourite colours. I probably don't have enough, but it's as much as I was prepared to carry around all day.

In addition to food stalls there was a band playing. Bill was struck by the fact there was no hat in which to put coins. I wonder who paid them?

We went through some narrow spaces and up a million stairs to what looked like a chateau-turned-hotel. 

I guessed this was a vicarage of sorts.

Beyond that was the church with probably the best view of the city. 

We sat and ate our packed lunches overlooking the city roofs, the river and the mountains. We took some group photos for other tourists and then they took ours. 

Perhaps my outfit could have used a bit of colour...

I see from my research that one can sometimes go inside.

I tried translating the Greek etched over the window, but Google Translate proved unrealiable. Amusing, but I'm none the wiser.

I never tried, but Chris has a major passion for cathedrals and so I'm fairly certain he at least tried the doors and found them locked.

Strangely, I thought, on one wall of the church was a sun dial which not only told the time, but supposedly indicated the month of the year using the usual zodiac signs. 

I was surprised to discover that I've forgotten the symbols I knew so well as a teenager. I've never really believed in astrology, but it was a teen thing back then. 

Bill was taken with some one's veggie garden. 

Not by what was planted or the use of plastic bottles as cloches, but by the astroturf strips between the planted areas. Brilliant!

Turns out I'm not immune to snow covered mountains after all.

I think covered bridges are probably quite useful in the Swiss climate - everything is built for heavy snow. This bridge had a number of lines with handles - for the purpose of surfing on the river!

On the way back to the train station, we happened to notice a couple of guys with wet suits and surf boards.

We watched as one caught one of the lines ('Lines' on the river seem to be a theme as well, as you'll see another day). He got on his board and the current took him to the middle of the river. I thought he was just going to ski, holding onto the rope.

Instead, he dropped the rope and began to surf the rough water that emerged from under the bridge. He fell down shortly, but the second guy seemed to surf for ages without effort.

We all thought it was a pretty ingenious idea. There are any number of videos on the internet if you wish to see it in motion.