95: More on Mulhouse

Hundreds of diners in Mulhouse's street cafes and not a single laptop in sight.

We had to leave Switzerland to get to Mulhouse, France, but this was not always a necessity. From 1515 to 1648, Mulhouse, then a free republic, was “an associate” of Switzerland, and did not formally join France until it went through some alterations by over-riding treaties with pretty names (Westphalia) and in 1798 voted itself into France during the early stages of the French Revolution. Basically, the residents said if there’s going to be guillotining, we want to be sure to be on the right side of the blade.

This kind of history always fascinates me, because it is a reminder that Europe is as tribal as Afghanistan, Africa and the scarier parts of Asia, not to mention the American aboriginal population. Yet somehow, France, Germany, Switzerland and the rest all managed to cobble themselves into nations and organize themselves to a degree where they were able to overwhelm other ‘nations’ that had less control over their tribalistic qualities.

We thought the Swiss and the Germans were serious about chocolate, but Mulhouse's chocolatiers take it to a new level. Do not miss the opportunity to try the local creme-filled chocolates. Ooo la la!

But back to Mulhouse: Is it worth the visit? Yes, it is, especially if you love museums, most of which I avoided due to my aforementioned intense allergy to boredom. This is the fault of my early education which was packed with field trips to museums where we mostly stood around in large packs waiting for a guide to finish explaining to us the importance of weaving in ancient populations. It was fine for a person so inclined toward textile history, but that is not for everyone, especially not for a bunch of eight-year-olds.

And while you are there be sure to taste the goodies from its numerous chocolate and pastry shops. They might be more responsible for the existence of the French national character than any past armed conflicts. The ice cream is not as good as Italy’s, but it is still delicious and proof that if the French understand anything, it is how to treat cream, sugar and all the good that flows from these ingredients.

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Crossing the Rhine at Basel

Jumping back to our rain-soaked trip to Basel of a few weeks ago, here’s a photo of a water-going vessel that takes nothing to work: No fuel, no wind, and no substantive human effort, although it does require a good current in the water.

From inside the fahri - passengers sit on wooden benches around the edge of the boat - a few are inside a cabin, but most are outside, so if it's raining, prepare to get wet.

Four of these boats (called fahri) bring passengers across the Rhine for 1.60 Euros a head. The heavy timbered boats are tethered to a line strung across the Rhine (they are spread out across the river, so there’s only one boat to a line). The captain shifts a large lever at the bow of the boat which sets it off into the current that pushes it along the line, gradually drawing the boat to the opposite shore.

The captain explained that it’s the direction of the lever that determines which way the boat will go. The boat travels at this oblique angle, which is a little weird to think of a boat that doesn’t ever go straight. The ride only takes a few minutes. Is it worth 1.60 Euros to drift across the Rhine? Sure. Why not?

Rhine ferry-crossing.

Swimming in the Rhine

Swim here if you like/dare.

This will fascinate no one but those who enjoy swimming in natural waters, as opposed to chlorinated, salt or ozone pools: We discovered that the Rhine is open for public swimming.

Being that it is such a major river, traversing more than 1,200 kilometres or 766 miles from Switzerland through Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France, Belgium and the Netherlands all the way to the North Sea, it might be thought natural that some of it is swimmable, however, it is precisely the Rhine’s enormous lengths that makes me averse to taking a dip, owing to the tremendous chance that the river’s current might just take me to places I had not intended to go, the worst being the bottom of the river, the second-worst being Liechtenstein, mostly because I have to repeatedly refer to other sources to spell it correctly.

Some signs you ignore at your own peril. This is one of them.

Other more bold swimmers than I might be a little put off by the swimming advisory signs to be found near the Swiss/German/French border city of Basel that show two broad lanes for swimmers, while the rest are for big boats. You don’t want to cross the invisible line into the boat lane. Just think of the propellers. On the positive side, the chances are almost nil that you will be overwhelmed by the flailing arms of other swimmers as happens so often in city swimming pools.*(see addendum)

Every August, at some horrifically badly concocted event, however, about 3,000 swimmers brave the Rhine, protected by boat-escorts.

Swimmers are advised to go with the current, a piece of useless advice if ever there was any, as from our vantage point along the shoreline, the strength of the current was such that it could not be challenged by any swimmer save those capable of strapping a 15-hp outboard to their backs. Ocean swimmers/divers might disagree with me.

Testing the Rhine’s waters is recommended only for “good swimmers,” for which I qualify, but for three near-drowning incidents that I do not tell my mother about. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely I’ll take a dip in this hallowed river, which, by the way, is reported to not be “too polluted.” I believe the Swiss on this count. They pride themselves on keeping their waterways clear, and the water sure looks clean.

If you go:

  • Only good swimmers should attempt the Rhine
  • Water temperatures are reported to be bearable only at the height of summer.
  • Numerous entry and exit points are recommended, but none by me. Visit the Tourist Office in Basel for advice. Never swim alone.
*Addendum: Despite my scepticism over the Rhine as a swimming hole, it turns out that I was wrong about that. Locals say it is a popular spot with swimmers. Go figure. 
Later this week: More on last week’s trip to Germany. 

Getting lost in 20,000 easy steps

I get lost almost everyday, so poor is my sense of direction, but Dave is of another breed, a type that innately knows where he is all the time. This is one of the reasons I married him. He works better than a compass and comes with the added bonus of holding my hand when leading me around. Compasses are not so compassionate. Also, I keep losing my compass. Dave is a foot taller than me, so I can usually find him.

In a rare moment this weekend, however, Dave was as lost as I, and I blame Basel for this. Look at this map:

Which way is north and south is hard to say when you're in this maze.

We ended up turned around somewhere near Bartusserplatz, a name that to the English ear sounds like a bit of a joke, and that is what we thought the tourist office was playing on us. We roamed the streets in the rainfall, in something of a daze trying to find the city gates, which really are worth finding. They are classical medieval gates that bring to mind Europe’s castle-storming history.

Basel Spalen city gate dating back to sometime between 1080 and 1398.

The city was once surrounded in walls and splendid gates, but in 1859 a city council decided to demolish the whole works but for a few gates, which goes to show that the stupidity of city/municipal councils is a time-honoured tradition that carries on in a lively manner even today, especially in Victoria, B.C., where the regional overseers allowed a crazy-8 traffic circle configuration on an uncluttered highway that serves the airport and ferry terminal, giving tourists heart stoppages in unknown numbers. But I digress…

We often walk about 12,000 to 14,000 steps on a single day of touring, but in Basel we went over 20,000, marching almost 9.5 miles, of which at least six miles were spent completely mystified over our location.

We have come back from this fog with advice for those aspiring to visit Basel. Here it is:

  1. Find the river and make it your reference point. There is no help in making an intersection or any roadway a reference point because they are as thick as the wool in a tight-knit scarf, not to mention that the Swiss are quite lax about street signage (this is probably in case Germany decides to invade, in which case the German army would have to ask for directions; quite an embarrassment for an invading army).
  2. The tourist office will tell you to take a bus from the train station to the historic quarter. Ignore this advice. The walk is less than 10 minutes and goes through a charming park and some pretty streets.
  3. Do not ask a local to place you on the map. We tried. They don’t know where they are either.
  4. When lost, just keep walking. The saving grace of all old-town districts is that they are not that large and eventually you will come out on either a freeway, at the train station or possibly in Spain, all easily identifiable on a map.

Alarming art in Basel

Dave trying out Rodin-inspired man-yoga move.

Growing up in Canada afforded me a culture-enriched education filled with lots of art, music and museums.  So many museums that just typing the word flattens my brain waves, introducing the early stages of what I am sure is a coma.

The problem is that we were not allowed to roam in museums owing to our generations large numbers. We were part of the baby boom, which meant there were a whole lot of us and not many adults, ergo, the adults in our lives, ie. teachers, kept us tightly reined in, especially when on field trips where they feared a few of us might wander away. Thus, we were forced to sit in the bus while they counted us, then stand outside the bus in line while they counted us, following which we would then stand in the museum lobby for as much as 90 minutes for the teachers to count us and then recount when they discovered that Pierre Vaisy was missing, as he often was, then do another count after Pierre was retrieved from the coat room where he had busied himself with inserting chewed gum into the coat pockets of miscellaneous classmates who had called him names. Pierre is not his real name.  It is ToadWart.

Eventually we would be escorted into the first display where we listened to a very old person, someone who was at least 45 years old, drone on about the American bison and why it was not a buffalo, and so on. This was wonderful for those interested in wild bovine creatures, but not so great for those eager to get on to the railroad history section. Sometimes the old person would have us stand near a display that looked very interesting, like the one of Native Americans bearing very cool-looking weapons, but instead the old person would want to talk about a single arrowhead discovered along the banks of the Red River. The arrowhead held our interest for a nano-second, only because we were sure it was an introduction to the battling aboriginals in the next display. Alas, our guide found the arrowhead topic inexhaustible, which meant that he talked until we were tired to death of the thing, and if one of us, perhaps ToadWart, had wrenched the arrowhead from the display to plant it into the carotid artery of the museum guide, not one of us would have stepped forward as a witness to condemn him.

Dave, pretending to paint a Salvador Dali painting.

Which explains why in Basel, an international Swiss city famed for its galleries and museums – numbering at least 30 of note – we only visited one, although to be fair, we did stand outside of a second one and admire its moving-art water display. I simply can’t stand museums, and neither can my husband, which probably explains our very happy marriage where we have spent most of the last 30 years skirting around museums but rarely entering one. When we cannot avoid a museum, we sprint through it. We once went through the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid in less than 20 minutes. If you have seen some of the Goya paintings in the Prado, you will appreciate that 20 minutes is about the right amount of time anyone should linger there.

As appalling as sprinting through a world-class museum may seem, it should be noted that the Prado recently stole our idea and introduced time-based tours for those trying to get out as fast as they can. The tours are one, two and three hours long, which is not quite as efficient as our 20-minute tour, but then these are the Spanish and it is likely that they have inserted a siesta into their tour schedule.

Basel’s Kunstmuseum (literally translated means art museum) is one not to miss. Not because of its exceptional collection of Rodin, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Dali, Renoir and van Gogh works, but because all of those are protected with an alarm system so that stepping up too close to a painting (we think four inches is the mark) causes a series of loud beeps to play out over a sound system, attracting brow-furrowed, annoyed art-appreciating Swiss guides and security staff. They invariably raced past us, because we are middle-aged and therefore somewhat beyond reproach, especially in a museum as these are known to be the natural gathering-places of middle-aged art connoisseurs except for the middle-aged who grew up in Canada as part of the baby-boom, but I’ve already mentioned that.

It took us about seven alarm soundings before we realized that we were the source of the noise, leading us to experiment with the alarm system. In addition to warning patrons to keep their distance, it also sounds when a camera flash is fired. Fascinating. How do the Swiss do it?

After an hour of wanderings, we left the building, apprehensive they might seize my camera or make us stand in line to count our heads and make sure no one was missing, but that did not happen.