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A Corner on Amity on the Continent

May 18, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

BASEL, Switzerland — The monument is like a symbol of the Space Age, pointing far out into other galaxies.

But it symbolizes something of more immediate urgency right here on planet earth in this troubled year of 1986.

The rocket-shaped pylon marks the Dreilaendereck, the Three Countries Corner, a small promontory in the Rhine River where the borders of France, West Germany and Switzerland meet in a harmony expressed by daily cultural, commercial and people-to-people relationships.

Three Countries Corner Monument is an exclamation point to all the reasons why Basel awaits discovery as one of the most rewarding destinations in Europe, much more than just the gateway city it has become for most travelers heading toward the internationally famed vacationlands of Switzerland.

Special interest travelers have been converging on the fairs and exhibition halls of Basel ever since the year 1471, when the city received an Imperial Patent to hold fairs; the Basel Autumn Fair has been held continuously since that year.

Fair Weather

More than 40 fairs and exhibitions have been scheduled for 1986, starting with the International Dog Show in January, the Coin Fair in February and continuing through such autumn highlights as the Basel Wine Fair Oct. 25-Nov. 3.

The European Clock, Watch and Jewelry Fair held April 17-24 displayed everything from the newest designs and technologies in wristwatches to classic clocks, gold, silver, pearl and platinum jewelry.

Coming June 12-17 is the International Fair of 20th-Century Art, showcasing more than 300 exhibiors from 20 countries. Last year 53,614 admission tickets were sold to the art fair and there were more than 1 million visitors to all the 1985 fairs and exhibitions.

Once visitors stop here for any reason, instead of just passing through the city they quickly discover many persuasions to stay longer or to return. These include:

Magnificent restorations of the old town; pedestrian walking areas on both sides of the Rhine; 27 museums with some of the great art collections of Europe; at least a thousand concerts, ballets and operatic performances every year; hotels in a wide range of prices.

Center of Sports

Restaurants of international standard are tucked into old guild halls; it's a center of sports from the playing fields and parks of the city to the waters of the Rhine and the slopes of the nearby mountain ranges; an intellectual climate that brings together many world cultures in a sharing of ideas.

More than a thousand years before the first fair was held, Basel on the Rhine was at a crossroads of the Celtic world. The Roman Empire founded a town here in 44 BC, and the hill on which the cathedral stands was one of its major fortifications.

In AD 1226 the ruling bishop mortgaged the church's treasure to build the first permanent bridge across the Rhine between Constance and the North Sea; collection of tolls made the town prosperous.

The Roman Catholic Church Council began meeting here in 1431, and the gatherings of learned churchmen led to the founding of the University of Basel in 1460; it is considered Switzerland's oldest and most prestigious. Basel became the center of humanism and the art of printing, the home of such intellectuals as Erasmus of Rotterdam.

When the guilds took control of the government from the bishops, the first steps were taken toward recognition of the special independence of the Swiss Confederation in 1648. German philosopher Karl Jaspers once wrote of Basel: "Here I feel I am a free man."

A Fascinating Aspect

The Jewish community and heritage in Basel presents one of the city's most fascinating aspects. The community dates to the beginning of the 13th Century. Jewish businessmen helped to finance the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake of 1356. By the 16th Century Basel was a printing center for Hebrew books.

Noted Zionist, author and journalist Theodore Herzl brought Jewish leaders from all over Europe to Basel in 1897 for the first Zionist Congress.

Many Zionist congresses have been held here since then, and a street in Basel is named after Herzl. The Jewish Museum of Switzerland here has exhibits of Jewish history, culture and everyday life.

We started our city tour aboard one of the tourist office buses that depart mornings and afternoons from in front of the major hotels.

It gave us an overview of the city on both sides of the Rhine, bringing its commercial life and chemical industries into perspective with the Old Town and adding to the cosmopolitan flavor.

Every morning 17,000 people commute to offices and industrial plants in Basel from France and West Germany. With a population of about 200,000 in its canton area, the city is proud of its "suburbs" in three countries.

A Swiss 'Seaport'

Visitors have the option of arriving at the Swiss, French or German railroad stations, at the international airport served by airlines from many nations and by highways reaching out to all of Europe.

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