ADVENT MARKET IN BASEL

Although among all the Christmas markets German fairs undoubtedly have the richest tradition, the Swiss do not necessarily have to have any complexes. Proof of this can be seen at the end of the year i.a. in Basel.

Source: Bartosz Król

Although among all the Christmas markets German fairs undoubtedly have the richest tradition, the Swiss do not necessarily have to have any complexes. Proof of this can be seen at the end of the year i.a. in Basel.

Basel is only the third most populated city in the country of the Helvetii. But in the category of the largest and most beautiful Christmas markets they indisputably hold their own against Zurich or Geneva. In fact, many believe that it is there – on the Rhine – where the greatest Swiss Christmas Market is held. And there is no way to argue with this opinion – especially when walking the streets of the historical center at the end of the year and later taking a look at the numbers.

Suffice it to say that only in 2015 during the fair in Basel visitors purchased as many as 70,000 Christmas cups intended for consumption of traditional Gluhwein, i.e. mulled wine. This corresponds to roughly 174 hectoliters, and yet one cup can be filled several times. Theoretically, to taste this aromatic beverage, there is no need to spend even a centime on a mug – it is enough to leave a deposit of usually two to three francs. Except that hardly anyone can resist the temptation to later take it home – and use it for consuming the warming drink for the rest of winter days while fondly recalling the memory of the unique Christmas time.

This is because even those doubting the existence of Santa Claus will have trouble forgetting the mesmerizing view of the 130 Christmas trees adorning the fair in Basel. Especially that all the trees have been decorated by top professionals in the field – led by a person calling themselves the master Christmas tree decorator who has taken up adorning perhaps the most admired specimen, i.e. the tree placed next to the cathedral. One other thing which makes the Basel Advent fair stand out is its immaculate organization. This however should come as no surprise, as the same formula has been used for the event for already as many as 38 times. Extensive experience of the hosts and the proverbial Swiss precision allow fair guests to focus only on the positive experience of consecutive evenings – be it among friends or newly met people. Because as the latest statistics show, foreign visitors (and this certainly does not refer to immigrants from Africa) already make up more than ten percent of all fair participants.

Every year, the market is officially opened in the late afternoon around November 25 (in 2016 exactly November 24). In line with tradition, the acting head of the City Council solemnly switches on the Christmas illumination on Münsterplatz which houses the magnificent municipal cathedral (interestingly, its construction was completed in several stages over a period of almost 500 years – from 1019 to 1500, in the Romanesque and Gothic style!). Moreover, the importance of the ceremony is further emphasized by the musical accompaniment provided by local artists from the Academy of Music. From that moment on, a variety of melodies and light shows accompany fair participants until the very Christmas Eve. Just to mention that almost every day it is possible to listen – usually in church – to organ concerts of baroque or classical music, as well as performances by street musicians.

Apart from the Cathedral Square, the second place where one can happily lose themselves for a long, long time among numerous fair stalls is Barfüsserplatz. The third such cluster is, in turn, located around the fourteenth-century town hall on Marktplatz. Adorned stalls, often resembling tiny cottages, offer a truly dizzying variety of items. The most popular among them are, of course, handicrafts – starting with Christmas decorations and ending with finely carved wooden items. Such an event would also be grossly incomplete without an abundance of food. And indeed, besides the already mentioned mulled wine, fair visitors can also choose among various kinds of grilled sausages with mustard and raclette, i.e. a dish without which the Swiss could not imagine wintertime. What's puzzling, it is successfully served both by elegant restaurants and points specializing in the so-called "street food". Melted cheese, served usually with jacket potatoes, pickles and pickled onions, may not dazzle with appearance, but its taste – and that's after just one bite – incites quite a different reaction. In the end, Switzerland is home to cheese – it reportedly boasts more than 500 species!

Some of them can also be purchased separately from market stands so as to later be able to enjoy a true cheese feast together with the loved ones after returning home. Another popular (and frequently taken home) delicacy are Leckerli, i.e. traditional Basler gingerbreads. Culinary hits available during the Weihnachtsmarkt also include waffles, French fries, local meats and hot chocolate. Their scents mix together in a similar way as the squeals of enthusiastic children. This is because the Christmas fair in Basel also offers a variety of attractions for children. Contrary to appearances, not only can they enjoy the spectacle of colors and satisfy their palates with various delicacies, but also benefit from a number of workshops on how to decorate gingerbreads, mint coins, bake cookies, cast and adorn candles or create various elements of the Christmas decor. Kids can also ride the fair cable car, spin the Wheel of Fortune and sit with their loved ones around bonfires.

The unique atmosphere that prevails at the end of the year in Basel is also associated with the unique location of the town itself, set on the border of three countries: Switzerland, France and Germany. Conversations conducted in several languages at once are nothing out of the common at the Weihnachtsmarkt. Despite that, finding one’s place among this truly international community comes extremely naturally. And if someone still prefers to explore the city with one of the locals, they can take part in afternoon walks organized by Basel Tourism, a local tourist organization. Guided tours start daily at 4 pm in front of the entrance to the cathedral, and end circa 5:30 pm on Barfüsserplatz.

During such walks visitors can find out i.a. that Basel is home to 40 museums, highly regarded also outside Switzerland. Some of them, such as the Art Museum (including the paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Eugene Delacroix), the Basel Historical Museum and the Toy World Museum are located in the so-called Great Basel which is the oldest part of the city. Others – like the Beleyer foundation museum – are set a little further away and reaching them requires the use of public transport. In any case, the time spent in these institutions will not be wasted, as the accumulated collections can intrigue even those who are not normally fascinated by a given subject.

During the Christmas period in Basel it is a must to visit two more places which are associated with the person of Johan Wanner. At first this name probably hardly rings any bells, but immediately after entering the store located at 41 Spalenberg street or café combined with an exhibition at 7 Schneidergasse street it will surely become impossible to forget or confuse with any other. This is because Mr. Wanner can without any false modesty boldly call himself the Master of Christmas decorations – nobody else in the world boasts a larger collection of hand blown and painted glass ornaments. And as soon as someone enters one of the aforementioned objects, they feel as if they just left the earthly reality and moved directly to the plan of some fairy tale, where life flows slowly among thousands of colors and lights. There is probably no object that would not have its glass and intricately painted counterpart in Wanner’s collection. A Christmas ornament in the shape of a camera? Here you are. A black-and-white decoration taken straight out of a football match played on a green field? But of course! Ornaments imitating the world’s most renowned alcohols in their typical bottles? No problem. Other than that, of course, deep bowls full of small works of art with slightly more traditional Christmas motifs: trees, angels, candles, gifts and bells. Some prices may be downright dizzying, but it must be remembered that for decades now the same products have been regularly ordered by the most distinguished families of the world - from the Hohenzollern family, through the Windsors, to the House of Grimaldi. They were and still are appreciated by the greatest artists – including Michael Jackson and outstanding Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. To top it all off, Christmas ornaments from Wanner have been hung on Christmas trees all around the globe – just to mention the Vatican and the White House in Washington. And if anyone still has doubts, they should know that the exhibited objects constitute only a fraction of the gigantic collection. In the end, we are talking about the world's largest collector and producer of this type of products, who implements his ideas in several locations across the Old Continent. And yet, during a conversation this old gentleman by no means gives such an impression – in fact, he appears somewhat still unaccustomed to the interest aroused by his passion.

Being in Basel during the Advent, one will probably also witness the announcements concerning the local carnival. Its fame extends well beyond the borders of Switzerland – perhaps because it is still not such a commercial venture as this type of events in other countries. By the locals and for the locals mostly – this might be the best way to sum up the organization of the party which begins on the night of Sunday to Monday after Ash Wednesday at 4 o'clock in the morning and lasts even up to 72 hours. The first point of the program is traditionally the Morgenstreich parade, i.e. morning parade which is as eagerly attended by housewives as it is by executives managing local branches of multinational corporations. Besides, preparations for the procession take off long before it even begins, as everyone makes it a point of honor to prepare an adequately distinctive costume and mask, as well as to assist – under special associations, called cliques – in the creation of platforms documenting the "hottest” events of the past year, which will be later proudly carried during the parade. Importantly, as it takes off all the lamps throughout the city are switched off, and the only sources of light are the torches and lanterns held by the participants of the carnival. And this – as everyone emphasizes – is only a taste of the fun to come...

It is worth noting that the cheapest way to reach Basel – not only in winter – is by plane with Wizz Air. The Hungarian carrier flies there i.a. from Warsaw, Bucharest and Sofia. Ticket prices start from less than 15 euros for a one-way flight.

 

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