Navigation

Skiplink Navigation

Main Features

A Day at the Museum

It's hard to believe my luck at having the rain move in for the weekend. Most people don't think that way, of course: weekends are for sunshine.

But this happens to be the weekend I'm taking off from outdoor adventure to see the city and visit its museums, so when I woke up to rain I almost laughed at my good fortune. How hard it would be to not jump on the bike if it were a precious day of sunshine!

Of course, we'll see who's laughing next week if the rain settles in for a longer session. Last night I had the great treat to spend some time on the phone with my wife. She told me that readers love the challenges that turn a fun outing into a real adventure - things like a broken bike, getting lost, falling off ridges. And bicycling through soggy downpours, I'm sure. I hope to disappoint you with a glorious Indian summer for the rest of the month! But we shall see.

For now it's a time to wander old streets with new attitudes and visit museums that help bring to life the things that I've been reading about in Swiss history books. Two of my favorites have been "Why Switzerland?" by Jonathan Steinberg (various 1990s editions), and "The History of Switzerland" written by John Wilson in 1832. The former is a wonderfully readable social analysis, with a good history component. The latter is vastly less readable, but it's fun to experience the old and highly challenging writing style.

One of my strongest takeaways from these reads was the incredible complexity of Swiss history, which provides a window into the unimaginable twists and turns (and spirals and explosions) of European history at large. But it's all at a distance on the written page, and even looking at old buildings hardly builds an emotional bridge to the past.

But seeing the actual artifacts of ancient times--like the famous halberd war axes and long spears used so effectively by Swiss mercenaries in the Middle Ages, and wooden benches sat in centuries ago by Basel burgers, and stained glass representations of royal courts, just for examples - these come a little closer to bringing the old times to life.

So far most of my museum time has been in the Basel Historical Museum, established in a cathedral that was almost torn down because it represented the old Franciscans (Catholic) in a town that turned Protestant very early in the Reformation. Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501, breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire (whose emperor was generally living in what is now Austria), and in 1529 turned Protestant. In fact Calvin's major work was first published here, in 1536. I suspect this had something to do with Basel's early adoption of printing, as in 1458 the Schwabe publishing house was founded--apparently the oldest printing house still in business.

This is but a tiny glimpse into the many treats of this city, which I'll be exploring in more depth the rest of this weekend. Not a bad way to spend a rainy day (or two, but please not more!).