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You might expect BASEL (Bâle in French, and often anglicized to Bâle), situated on the Rhine exactly where Switzerland, Germany and France touch noses, to be the focal point of the continent, humming with pan-European energy. It’s true that Basel’s voters are the most fervently pro-European of all Switzerland’s German speakers but, somehow, the close proximity of foreign languages and cultures has introverted the city rather than energized it: Basel’s a curiously measured place, where equilibrium is everything. You won’t find anyone shouting about the new Europe here; in fact, you’re unlikely to find anyone shouting about anything at all. Even the city’s massive carnival is a rigorously organized set piece.
With both a gigantic river port – Switzerland’s only outlet to the sea – and the research headquarters of several pharmaceutical multinationals (including Novartis, one of the principal players in global development of GM crops and foods), Basel nurtures its reputation as Switzerland’s wealthiest and most discreet city. Its historic centre – dominated by the awe-inspiring Münster – is definitely worth seeing, and the city’s long-standing patronage of the arts has resulted in a panoply of first-rate museums and galleries – 35 in all, including the stunning Beyeler collection, Basel’s sole unmissable attraction. And yet, bequeathed a glittering medieval past endowed with some of the greatest minds of European history (Erasmus, Holbein and Nietzsche, to name just three) and centuries-long access to the best of three neighbouring worlds, it’s almost as if Baslers lost the plot when it came to defining their city for today. Most people seem to back the standard Swiss default option of gathering wealth in a discreet and orderly fashion, saving money shopping in France and having a better time partying in Germany. Which is all very well, but it tends to leave their own city rather bereft in the process.
Another fly in the ointment has been the recent Nazi gold controversy, in which it was indicated that venerable Basel – and, more specifically, the little-known but extremely powerful Bank for International Settlements headquartered in the city – spent the 1930s and ’40s quietly laundering the Nazis’ ill-gotten gains under a cloak of neutrality. Evidence of such murky banking practice was received with shock, anger and disbelief in Basel and around the country, and has yet to be fully accepted. Unaccustomed to being faced with pointing fingers, Baslers may take some decades to assess and absorb the accusations.
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