On two wheels through three countries all in one day

A lonely border post outside of Basel Keystone

Basel, Switzerland's second largest city, has two distinctions: it's arguably the most bicycle-friendly in the nation, and lies on the border with two of Switzerland's neighbours. Markus Haefliger spent a day in this unique region.

This content was published on September 21, 2000 - 10:05

Peter Schai speaks enthusiastically about the Little Camargue, the wetlands between the French villages of St-Louis-la-Chaussée and Rosenau bordering the river Rhine just north of Basel.

"Imagine - this wilderness is just eight kilometres from the market square in the very centre of Basel. What other industrial city can say that for itself?"
Schai, a 58-year-old lawyer and owner of a small consultancy firm, likes to direct his friends' attention to what they commonly overlook: the beauty to be found in their own backyard.

An avid cyclist and explorer of his home region, he regularly writes up his favourite day trip of the year, complete with cultural and historic annotations, and sends the single-sheet bulletin to friends and acquaintances before Christmas.

To reach the Little Camargue, a 10 square-kilometre natural reserve named after the vast mouth of the river Rhone in southern France, you follow a disused branch of the Rhine-Rhone canal from the small French border town of Huningue, to the northwest of Basel. The former towpath is now a cycle route.

The area, which is flooded occasionally to preserve its wetlands habitat, is a rare resting place for migratory birds. But it appeals to plant lovers as much as bird watchers. A botanical path was constructed a few years ago, and a small research station regularly hosts seminars for biology students from across the region.

Schai, who is also a prominent local politician and member of the parliament of canton Basel City, puts the Little Camargue in its historical context.
"Basel has suffered in many ways for being tucked into a peripheral corner of Switzerland", he says.

Unlike other Swiss cities, Basel, which is the centre of Switzerland's chemical industry, couldn't develop a roundabout suburban hinterland during the decades of massive economic growth and increased mobility after World War II.

"But the good side to this is that you can hop across the border into Germany or France and easily find spots where it feels as if there isn't a big city nearby at all", Schai says.

Schai was involved in a project to rehabilitate a historic fish farm in the area. When moves were discussed to re-introduce salmon to the Rhine river, Schai suggested the government of Basel City pool forces with its neighbours.

Instead of developing its own fish farm, Basel subsidised a project based in an old fish farm in the Little Camargue. The farm was built in the 1850s by Napoleon III and was one of the most modern in Europe at the time. But it decayed in the 20th century, even before most fish in the Rhine died as a result of pollution.

Today clean water flows again in the Rhine. And the Napoleonic fish farm, which is open to the public, currently breeds 300,000 salmon eggs per year.

From the Little Camargue, cyclists can go in one of many directions but if they want to stay close to Basel and see the most of three countries in a day, they should cross the Rhine at the Kembs power station, one of the oldest - it was built in 1928 - and largest on the Rhine.

From the small road across the barrier, which is open to cyclists, you can watch the barges as they wait for their turn to pass the locks on their way up or down the Rhine. They're still one of Switzerland's most important supply line, especially in fuel and bulk goods, and they unload their cargo at the Basel harbour just 10 kilometres upstream from Kembs.

The French and German armies exchanged artillery fire here in late 1944 during the last phase of the Second World War.

Even before the war, this stretch of the river had become a bone of contention. France, the First World War victors, diverted it to gain exclusive water rights. The French have been using the river extensively for hydroelectric power ever since.

Thanks to the European Union's Schengen agreement, which does away with border controls between signatory states, cyclists have to check their maps to realise they're entering Germany from France when they cross the Rhine at Kembs.

Even though Switzerland is not party to the agreement, most traffic actually flows unhindered between all three countries.

The open borders around Basel may be puzzling to foreigners, but Peter Schai thinks they're normal: "This region of three countries has a common history, and the same [German language] dialect is spoken in Basel, in the French Alsace, and in this southernmost tip of Germany."

Schai says that the two world wars laid "unnatural" barriers across the region and in people's minds. "I'm glad to say, however, that these borders are now being slowly but surely removed."

There are countless restaurants along the bicycle trails around Basel, and they're evidence that although the people living in the border region speak the same language, they have very different tastes, reflecting the national cuisines of their respective countries.

Two simple country inns stand out. Set in picturesque surroundings, they offer the best in traditional lunches, snacks and beverages.

The Ochsen inn is found in the German village of Ötlingen above the vineyards of Haltingen. It's only a short ride and climb from the Rhine crossing at Kembs, and also near the famous Rötteln castle to the north of the German border town of Lörrach.

Sitting in the shade of a lime tree on the Ochsen's open-air terrace affords a splendid view of Basel, the Rhine valley, Switzerland's Jura hills and the Vosges mountains in France.

The inn offers simple cheese and ham dishes, served with homemade bread and owner Jürgen Marx' own white wine. During the autumn harvest, Marx serves up his "young wine", which is still milky and sweet with just a tickle of alcohol, together with a basket full of fresh walnuts.

"Tending to a vineyard, gathering various fruit and running a family inn, we just never had time to devise a complicated menu or change the interior", says Marx, who is the third generation innkeeper of the family. "But some years ago we suddenly realised that being 'old-fashioned' was actually an asset with our customers."

The other country inn, the Auberge de St-Brice near Oltingue in France about 10 kilometres southwest of Basel is still a well-kept secret.

In a clearing on top of a forested hill lies the 14th century chapel of St-Brice, a destination for pilgrims until it was closed down during the French revolution. The farmhouse next to it was later used by the village of Oltingue to house pauper families.

When Madame Gerum, an elderly widow, became the tenant in the 1960s, she quietly began to serve bread, cheese and wine to riders passing on their horses. Later, she had some tables made from planks erected under the trees.

Madame Gerum has since died; her country inn was finally licensed and even received special permission by the Archbishop of Strasbourg to serve wine and food so close to a chapel.

But the current innkeeper, Michel Tschienber, has retained the charm of the place. The tables are still rough, and the bottles are cooled under the running water of the farmhouse fountain.

by Markus Haefliger

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