A well-travelled gastroenterologist, Dr. Jun Ruiz, shares his memorable visit to two picturesque Swiss cities that captured his heart and made him yearn to keep on coming back
Switzerland is a majestic and spectacularly beautiful country that I had always dreamt of visiting since childhood. The beautiful Alpine mountains, the pristine lakes, the lush vegetation, and its good-looking Swiss peopoke all entice me to visit this picturesque country.
My first journey to Switzerland when this childhood dream came true was in December 2009. My brother Robert and his family had just moved to Basel. My vacation was foremost a reunion with family, but my experience of a glittering winter wonderland during that Christmas holiday season captured my heart.
There are many reasons why people travel back again to places they had already visited. First, they fell in love with the place and the cost of travel fits their budget. Second, there is so much to see but too little time in the initial visit. Third, if you have ties to the area, whether it is personal or from family, a return is like coming home. My trips back to San Francisco and Washington D.C. have always brought me fond memories and nostalgia, both places being subjects of my prior travelogues.
After my initial visit to Switzerland, I had explored twice the land of the Alps, the Matterhorn, and Swiss watches over the next seven years. The second time was at the height of summer of 2011 when I was truly mesmerized by the splendor and vibrancy of its natural wonders. Last year, I extended my European tour in Italy to include Switzerland. All these trips gave me a great taste of Switzerland’s most popular cities, the most exciting Alpine resorts, and picturesque villages.
My home in Switzerland is Basel, where my brother Robert, his wife Jennifer, and their children Johann and Lukas live. Basel is the country’s third largest city, and is located at the corner where Swiss, German, and French borders meet in northwestern Switzerland. The city nestles along the Rhine River, and is Switzerland’s only port. Basel has the best of both worlds – it has the charm of a quaint and slow-paced town, yet has the amenities of a big city.
Basel is one of the major industrial and commercial centers of Switzerland, particularly of the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. It is also known as the “Cultural capital of Switzerland”, with nearly forty museums containing world renowned exhibitions, and being the site of the country’s first university founded in 1460. Only few cities in Europe can match this concentration of cultural attractions.
Basel was a fortified settlement in the Middle Ages, and has evolved into a center for life sciences and trade congresses. Basel’s Old Town is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved cities of medieval origins in Europe. These 15th century buildings are architectural attractions that allow you to step back into time. Admire the cobblestone streets, medieval churches, picturesque old but well-maintained historic homes, and beautiful fountains. The entire Old Town has been accorded as a heritage site of national significance.
Since Basel is compact in size, one can discover its charms by foot. Internationally renowned contemporary architecture, as represented by several modern buildings designed by top Swiss architectural firms, creates a dynamic yet harmonious cityscape with modern architecture blending with these historic buildings.
The best place to start exploring Basel is by the Rhine. For the locals, the Rhine is a source of well-being and relaxation. This is a popular place for walking, jogging, and recreation. During the summer months, the locals gather along the river banks to sunbathe, relax, and swim in the cool waters. Cross the Mittlere Brucke (Bridge) to the northern bank to admire the beautiful panoramic views of the Grossbasel (Greater Basel) district with the Cathedral dominating the landscape.
Basel’s most important landmarks
The city’s most important landmark is the majestic Cathedral (Basler Munster), built on a hill overlooking the Rhine. This Protestant Church has dark red sandstone walls, colorful patterned roof, and lovely twin towers. This was built between the 12th and the 16th century in Romanesque and Gothic style. Inside are beautiful stained-glass windows, sculptures, and artworks.
The square Munsterplatz around the church is a favorite meeting place for the locals, and is often the site for major events. From the stone terrace observation platform known as the Pfalz, you can enjoy spectacular views overlooking the Rhine and the northern banks.
In the middle of Old Town is the striking Gothic town hall known as Rathaus. It is the seat of the Basel government and its parliament. It has a brightly painted red façade, the characteristic tower, and several frescoes. The oldest part of this structure was built between 1504 and 1514.
Spalentor, the monumental fortified Gothic gate on the west side of Old Town, is the most impressive of the three remaining entrance gates to the walled city dating back to 1370. It was a major part of the defensive walls that once encircled Basel. Spalentor consists of an impressive square main tower with a pointed shiny roof, flanked on each side by round towers. One can climb the steep stairs to the top to appreciate panoramic views of Old Town.
Among the many museums in Basel, the Kunstmuseum (Museum of Art) is the most popular and considered among the best museums in the world. It is also the world’s oldest public art museum. Its collections include Swiss, German, Dutch, Flemish and French paintings from the 15th to 20th century art.
After enjoying what Basel has to offer, you can visit Luzern (Lucerne in French) which is only 100 kilometers away. You can easily take a train and be there in an hour. Like Basel, Luzern is a compact city known for its predominantly preserved medieval architecture blending with innovative and modern architectural buildings like the Culture and Convention Center (KKL).
Luzern lies on the western shore of Lake Luzern and is surrounded by beautiful snowcapped mountains of central Switzerland. This gorgeous setting has bestowed on Luzern to be among the world’s prettiest cities. Most tour companies usually include this destination as part of their itinerary in grand European organized package tours.
In addition to the charm of Luzern’s Old Town of picturesque historic houses, cobblestone streets, town squares, churches, and riverside cafes, the two most popular attractions are the Chapel Bridge and the Dying Lion Monument.
Top tourist attractions in Luzern
The Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrucke) is the 204 m long covered wooden bridge originally built in 1333, the oldest covered bridge in Europe. It was partly destroyed by fire in 1993, and has been reconstructed. The Chapel Bridge serves as the centerpiece of Luzern, and has become the symbol of the city. Inside the bridge are series of paintings depicting events from the history of the city. The bridge (with the nearby octagonal Water Tower) is said to be the most photographed monument in Switzerland.
The Lion Monument shows a dying lion in full pathos, which was carved out of rock, to honor the 786 brave Swiss guards who died during the French Revolution in an attack in 1792. For museum lovers, a visit to the Swiss Museum of Transport which exhibits all modes of transport is recommended.
Luzern is also the ideal starting point to highlights of central Switzerland. I personally recommend an excursion to Mount Pilatus. The highest peak is at 2,132 m (7,000 ft). To experience this unique Alpine adventure, first, one has to take a train ride from Luzern to near the foot of Pilatus. From there, you either ride the world’s steepest cog railway or take the aerial panorama gondolas to ascend to a viewing platform on near the summit of Pilatus. The ascent is breathtaking, and you will see the best heavenly views of the Alps and the lowlands from the top.
My repeated trips to Switzerland have further captivated my senses with its enchanting natural wonders, and have enriched my deep appreciation for its people and culture. Without a doubt, I am coming back.
“Internationally renowned contemporary architecture creates a dynamic yet harmonious cityscape with modern architecture blending with historic buildings”
June 2017 Health and Lifestyle