Not your typical English tour of Basel

Not all of the people of Basel are carnival clowns.

They usually have better things to do than running sightseeing tours of their adopted homes, but what if you could hire an expatriate as your guide?

This content was published on November 21, 2005 minutes

Two leading lights of Basel's English-speaking community give swissinfo a few insider tips, and speak about smokestacks and medieval firewalls.

The Löwenzorn restaurant in the heart of Basel's old town is where we've agreed to meet.

"It's half way between Dianne's shop and my office," says Michael Sundman, quick to show he is still a straight-talking American, despite his 16-odd years on the banks of the Rhine.

"The Löwenzorn," he adds, "is characteristic of Basel, an earthy place."

Dianne Dicks agrees. "It's a meeting place for many Fasnacht (carnival) guilds, but other kinds of clubs as well," she says of the cosy eatery.

Even though they both hail from the United States, I could not have chosen two more different Basel residents to give me the low-down on the city they call home.

Living legend

Dianne is a living legend in Switzerland's English-speaking community.

A resident since the 1960s, she is the founder and publisher of Bergli Books, producing a wide range of English-language books on life in the alpine nation. She also owns and operates the Basel bookshop of the same name.

Mike has lived in Basel with his family since 1989.

He was originally recruited by the former Ciba-Geigy on a 12-month probationary contract as head of business development for its pharmaceutical division. He then took charge of restructuring the Baloise insurance company's international operations before setting up his own consultancy in 1999.

Dianne and I order a draft beer, Mike sticks to mineral water. A platter of cured beef and ham I order is left untouched. Eating, we concur silently, would interrupt the flow of conversation.


"Basel is different," Mike begins. "It has a strong industrial base but it's research driven, so to get the people they want here they need culture.

"[The kind of people recruited] are smart and sophisticated, and that is reflected in the museums. They are unbelievable. My favourite is the Antique museum – not furniture but Romans and Etruscans," he emphasises, afraid I will miss the point.

Dianne likes the highly acclaimed Beyeler art gallery, and adds the dollhouse museum and the one dedicated to pharmaceuticals. "No surprise in this city," she says of the latter.

Her tour of Basel starts at the Löwenzorn, with its carnival lampshades and friendly atmosphere, and winds through the old town's narrow alleys, continues to the Beyeler on the city's outskirts and is followed by a walk along the banks of the Rhine, a visit to the Tinguely museum, the theatre as well as the zoo...

I have to stop her in her tracks, telling her most tourists only have a few hours to see the city.

It is Mike's turn. "I'd suggest they do what Dianne recommends, but I'd start in the middle of the Rhine bridge, where you see all the smokestacks [of the pharmaceutical and chemical companies] if you look up and down the river."

"There are hardly any smokestacks left," Dianne argues. She says the big industrial concerns have cleaned up their act, citing the Rhine as an example.

Cool river

On a hot summer's day, she likes nothing better than to jump in and float down river.

"And I'm not alone," she says. "There are thousands of people swimming. I think it's cleaner than most pools around here."

When he feels adventurous, Mike takes advantage of Basel's unique location, wedged between France and Germany.

"I ride my bike into France and play golf in Germany," he says.

We then play word association and I begin with "Rhine".

"Riviera," Mike says, putting – I think – too much emphasis on the first syllable.

Dianne starts to praise the riverside parks before Mike interrupts, knowing that this time I really have missed the point.

"It's a classic in Basel," he explains. "The Rhine is pronounced 'Rhyy' (Ree) in Swiss-German. You go and sit on the steps on the Rhine, which makes it Basel's 'Rhyy-viera'."

Nietzsche, the 19th-century philosopher who studied and taught here, is next. "I have a picture in my mind of the house at Münsterplatz where he used to give piano concerts," Dianne says.


I mention a landmark, the foreboding 14th-century Spalentor gate, the only remains of the ancient city walls.

"My office is only 30 yards away so I see it every day. It's a reminder that there used to be a lot of heads banged around here," he says, remarking that it was the medieval equivalent of today's computer firewall technology.

Dianne's immediate association is completely different, and proof that a city like Basel can be different things to different people.

"In my day, ladies used to wear underpants that in cold weather came down to your knees," she laughs. For some unknown reason, she says, they were called "Spalentor pants".

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Basel

Key facts

The Löwenzorn restaurant where the conversation took place is a Basel institution.
It is the traditional meeting place for dozens of Fasnacht 'cliques', guilds and student associations whose names are stamped on shutters, engraved on tables and painted on walls.
There are members of the cliques here most evenings of the year practicing on their piccolos and drums, the main instruments played during Basel Fasnacht.

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In brief

Basel is pharmaceuticals, Zurich banks and Geneva a diplomatic crossroads par excellence.

English is more than just a second language in these cities; it has helped define their characters in the modern age.

But what is it about these very international cities that have convinced so many native English speakers to put down roots?

swissinfo speaks to expatriates in Basel, Zurich and Geneva about the places to see and the things to do in their adopted homes. The next report will focus on Zurich.

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