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  • Writer's pictureSigne

5 water stories about Basel

You won't find a normal city tour here -

but five exciting stories that all have to do with water.

Dive into this blog post!

Water in Basel

1.) The great river - the Rhine

The Rhine is the lifeline of Basel. For the development of the city, the Mittlere Brücke (“middle bridge”) was of crucial importance. Located directly at the bend of the Rhine, it is the oldest in Basel and was the only one crossing the Rhine in Basel until 1897. At that time, it was also the only bridge across the Rhine between Basel and the North Sea! The Rhine had not yet been straightened and there were only ferries connecting the two sides of the river.

With the construction of the first structure in 1225, goods coming over the Gotthard Pass to Basel and further north could be transported via the Rhine and no longer had to be loaded laboriously and awkwardly onto ferries. This made Basel famous as a trading centre and the bishops rich from the bridge toll.

The stone bridge over the Rhine, as it stands today, was built between 1903 and 1905. It connects Gross- and Kleinbasel (“great and small Basel” – formerly a fishing village).

Mittelbrücke in Basel

1.) The secret river under the road

In the extension of the market square, one gets from Gerbergasse into Falknerstraße. This street was built on top of a river around 1900. And today the streetcar and cars cross the water. How did it come to this?

The Birsig is a tributary of the Rhine. It flows from the Leimental and flows into the Rhine in the city centre at the Schifflände. In the past, rows of houses were built directly along the course of the river. It absorbed the sewage and faeces of these houses and was therefore a pure cesspool. Various slaughterhouses disposed of their slaughterhouse waste, and it must have stunk terribly!

Therefore, the Birsig was covered from the year 1800 and later built over with a road on which we can stroll today.

Already in the Middle Ages there were frequent floods in the city, which came especially from the Birsig and not from the Rhine.

The high-water mark at the city hall of Basel indicates floods of this river.

Birsig vor dem Überbau der Falknerstrasse in Basel

3.) Swimming in the Rhine

Until the Middle Ages, bathing in the Rhine was socially frowned upon; besides commercial use (fishing), it was mainly used as wastewater from urban households.

In the meantime, the Rhine is clean. Swimming is allowed and equipped with the Wickelfisch (“wrapping fish”), a waterproof swimming bag, this is a popular summer activity for the people of Basel. A good place to start is at the Museum Tinguely. Here you pack all your things into the Wickelfisch, which can be bought at various places in the city. Filled with everything that should stay dry, rolled up and folded over, you go into the Rhine and let yourself float in the water for about 1.5 miles along Kleinbasel.

Very refreshing!

Swimming in the Rhine with the Wickelfischen

4.) Tinguely fountain - the funniest fountain in the city

The artist Jean Tinguely created the Fastnachtsbrunnen (“carnival fountain”) in 1977.

It stands on the Theaterplatz (“theatre square”) in Basel on the spot where the stage of the old theatre used to be. 10 machine figures "play" with the water.

The Swiss artist (1925-1997) was an important painter and sculptor.

The company La Roche has even financed a museum in his honour, where his exhibits and movable sculptures are displayed.

The Carnival Fountain is one of the few fountains in the city that does not carry drinking water.

Fastnachts-fountain in Basel von Tinguely

5.) Fountains of the city - drinking water and swimming pool

There are over 200 fountains in Basel and drinking water bubbles from most of them. So next time you visit, just take your water bottle with you and fill it up as needed (but see above).

The fountains in Basel are cleaned regularly. Eleven of them may even be used as a bath to cool off in summer. People meet here in the evening to socialize, and the children of the surrounding houses are happy to have a paddling pool near their apartments during the day.

Swimming in the fountains of Basel
Picture: Dominik Plüss;

But there are also interesting customs, of which I would like to tell two here:

  1. On New Year's Day, the city's guilds meet at the Trident Fountain for the "Neijoors-Aadringgede". There, instead of water, wine flows from the pipes. There is a spiced wine called Hypogras, which is adulterated from various wines and spices. Most people think one glass is enough😊.

  2. Basel's Urban Fountain on Blumenrain used to be a popular meeting place for the people of Basel. St. Urban is the patron saint of vine and wine people and on his name day, May 25, he is festively decorated. In addition, two glasses of wine are placed at the fountain (one red and one white). If not a drop of rain falls into the glasses until the evening, it should be a good wine year.

So, off to Basel to explore the water secrets.

Do you know any other Basel water stories – please tell us in the comments.

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