Arlesheim is a large village of about 9,000 inhabitants in Kanton Basel-Land. It is part of Basel's „Speckgürtel“, the area around the city where the wealthy people have built their affluent homes. Many commute into Basel for work. This small, almost rural community is a great place to live, surrounded by hills and forests, but a 20 minute tram ride from central Basel. Locals claim Arlesheim is the most beautiful village of the Baselbiet.
Birseck castle seen from the village
Already in the past Arlesheim must have been attractive. When the Bishop of Basel had to leave the city after the Reformation and find a new residence, he chose Arlesheim. That's why this village has a large baroque cathedral.
In the middle ages a noble family built Birseck castle on the hill above the village. To local nobility the village also owes its other main attraction, the 18th century landscape park named Eremitage. It is an early example of English landscape gardening. Some of the small garden buildings still exist, also the general design with the three artificial ponds on the valley ground.
Hiking and Walking round Arlesheim
As soon as you are in Arlesheim, the best way of getting around is walking. Distances are short.
Directions are well signposted, you have to try really hard to lose your way.
A round trip to the attractions round the village and Ermitage is marked with those cute signs with the sock. Distances are given in minutes and these figures are realistic.
There is a German saying, „sich auf die Socken machen“ („make yourself on your socks“), which means, get going, start walking, be on your way. The sign has it in Swiss German. Nevertheless I recommend wearing shoes;-))
The landscape around is, just like the whole of Switzerland, covered with a dense network of hiking trails. These are also well signposted. Distances are given in hours and minutes here, too.
This signpost is close to the tram stop. You can do long or short hikes, just as you like.
They like signposts in Arlesheim and they want everyone to find them. What other explanations could there be for this sign that I spotted at the tram spot? This is a sign that points to the location of the signpost. Love it. Only Swiss efficiency could invent and put up such a sign.
The Village Centre
My host told me Arlesheim is the most beautiful village in the region around Basel - I cannot tell whether this is justified or not because I have seen too few places in the area, but the old village centre it is surely pretty. The finest area is around the cathedral and north of it, along Dorfgasse and Ermitagestrasse.
Arlesheim has long become a commuter suburb for people who work in Basel, but the old village has maintained its rural flair. Some of the former farmhouses are accompanied by old barns. Many have little gardens with vegetables and flowers. The old centre is small and easily walkable, it is right on the way from the tram stop to Ermitage park.
Dorfplatz is the central square of the village. The late baroque fountain in the middle is dated 1791. The white building, probably built about the same time, hosts the civil registry office.
When walking the streets of the old village, the gardens around the houses are worth noting. Even the smallest patch of land between house and street can be turned into a garden which is both pretty and useful. Even a kitchen garden can look romantic, with rows of forget-me-nots around the vegetable patches.
Trotte is the seat of the village museum. What is a „Trotte“? A wine press. This building gives testimony of the times when Arlesheim was a village of vintners. The big press in the village centre was used by all of them. Winemaking is hard labour but pays off well, which explains a certain wealth already in past centuries. The present building was erected in the 18th century but substituted a much older precedessor. Later on it underwent changes and served for different purposes until it has recently been turned into a cultural centre and museum. When I visited it showed an exhibition of contemporary art, I assume by local artists. The museum is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Dom - Arlesheim Cathedral
Arlesheim has a cathedral, despite being a rather small village. Not one that's named „Dom“ because of its size or whatever, but a real one. A cathedral is, by definition, the church of a bishop.
After the reformation, the Bishop of Basel and the canons left the city and sought refuge in Freiburg. In 1678 the bishop and his clerics came back, but they could not return to the city of Basel. So they picked a place at the doorstep of the city which was still in their hands and was a pleasant place to live, with wine and a mild climate and pleasant landscape. Soon after, the construction of a new cathedral began. Already in 1681 it was completed and consecrated. Around 1761 the church was refurbished, ornated with stucco on rococo style, and the vaults painted with frescoes that show scenes from the life of Mary, as the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The general impression of the interior is that of a rococo church with lots of light, white and pastel colours, delicate stucco ornaments. The main nave is accompanied by side chapels, each with a baroque altar. The pride of the church is the Silbermann organ, built by Johann Andreas Silbermann from Strasbourg around 1760. The cathedral is open in the daytime, access from Domplatz through the large main portal.
Domplatz, the square in front of the cathedral, shows the cityscape like in a planned baroque city. The 'square' is a rectangle with buildings along three sides. The front of the church occupies the short side. The two long sides hold two buildings each that used to be the residential houses of the canons in the chapter. Nowadays they serve as parsonage (next to the church on the right) and seats of administrative offices. A baroque fountain marks the centre where a side street crosses the square at right angle.
The square was very quiet on a Sunday afternoon except a few passers-by, it will be busier on weekdays when the authorities are working. Sunday is good for photos, though. The view of Domplatz with the facade of the cathedral is 'the' photo from Arlesheim. The light is best in the afternoon when the sun is on the facade.
Eremitage and Birseck Castle
Arlesheim's main treasure, in addition to the cathedral, is the park known as Eremitage. The Eremitage is described as the largest English landscape garden of Switzerland (which means there cannot be many others). The park is located in a small side valley among rolling hills which are covered with forests. The entrance is a short walk from the centre of the village next to the rocky hill with Birseck castle. It includes the stream and three ponds, the steep castle hill, meadows and forest. It has the appearance of a very pleasant natural landscape but was in fact carefully designed and shaped.
The garden was designed in the late 18th century for Balbina von Andlau-Staal, member of a local noble family. In the revolution and the following French occupation it was destroyed a few years later but reinstalled after 1812 when the noble owners returned. The present buildings, like the castle ruin, the mill, and other economy buildings were integrated into the garden plan as well as the rocks and grottos of the hill. The three artificial ponds served for the breeding of fish and are still inhabited by large numbers of carps. Some meadows are used as pastures. Small monuments refer to antique mythology.
The castle creates memories of medieval knightship, in its romantic interpretation of course. The name „Eremitage“ derives from the hermit's cell that was installed on a rock above the entrance.
The park can be accessed 24/7 and for free. The main trail around the ponds leads gently uphill and takes you in a wide curve up to the castle on the hilltop. This is a very pleasant and easy walk, you hardly notice how much altitude you are gaining. The paths on the hillside, however, are steep and zigzagging, partly stairs, partly forest trails, and much trickier to walk.
Eremitage park has, as the name implies, a hermitage and a resident hermit. The hermit's cell is a little chapel-like building in a small garden on the steep rocky hillside. It is built from wood and covered with bark to make it look more rustic. The hermit inside is not a real person but a mechanical puppet, though. Only on certain occasions in summer the windows of the hermit's cell are opened so people can see him. During my visit the hermit's cell was undergoing renovations so I could not see him, though.
Further up the hill there is a viewpoint called the hermit's lookout, a wooden shed that overlooks the valley and park.
Birseck castle is located on a small hill by the entrance to the park, overlooking the village. The castle has medieval origins. In those times it belonged to the Bishops of Basel. It was destroyed in the revolution wars at the end of the 18th century and refurbished in 1812, together with the final phase in the construction of the Eremitage gardens. Hence a lot of its present shape is 19th century historism.
The castle keep has a stork's nest on top. Wild storks live in the area and they do build their nests on top of high buildings but - this one is fake, it is a metal weather vane...
Nature has invaded the landscape garden. It is buzzing with life. I visited in May and lots of wildflowers in all colours were in bloom everywhere. Birds and waterfowl like the ponds and the forest areas. May meant little fluffy ducklings around... The ponds are used to breed carps; the fish are clearly visible in the light greenish water. Some pastures host herds of domestic animals. There are cows, and also sheep from an old race which have black heads and a white coat.
Walking Eremitage park is already romantic in itself, you'd think trees and lakes and flowers and little buildings, that's enough. However, they do indeed provide their visitors with an overkill of Swiss romantic, it's all there... What does it need for an overkill? Right - cowbells.
Approaching the far end of the park I heard their sound. I could not believe my ears. Then I saw the meadow with a herd of brown cows. The whole family, or better clan, was there together: the bull, several female cows, their suckling calves and young heifers. They all seemed very gentle, even the big strong bull, and happily posed for photos. They probably belong to a race that is bred for meat only, not for the milk, otherwise they would not have left the calves with their mothers. It is a beautiful picture, the golden brown bovines in a lush green pasture full of flowers.