A Travellerspoint blog


Vrooommm Santa Claus! Basel on St Nikolaus Day



„Santa Claus“ is actually Saint Nikolaus and his holiday is December 6. In Basel they call it „Samichlaus“, and it is an important event. Basel is full of santas that day, respective the Saturday that is closest to Dec 6 (in that year Dec 6 was on a Saturday). Nikolauses, or rather Nikoläuse to use the correct German plural, are everywhere in the shops and streets. Kids can take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage with Nikolaus. One was in a canoe on the Rhine. Later I even spotted a dragon boat with some 20 Nikolauses rowing, unfortunately it was too far away to take a photo. There was also kind of a barrel organ festival in the city with musicians everywhere. And the Christmas market is on.

The Nikolaus's dress is usually the same as the Weihnachtsmann respective Santa Claus wears: red coat and pointed hat with white furry borders, long white beard and so on. Only those who 'work' for churches will wear a bishop-like outfit that resembles the original Saint Nikolaus, bishop of Myra.

Nikolaus often comes with a companion, Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli. The guy in black is the counterpart of good Nikolaus who can be Nikolaus' helper but also the scary one who punishes bad deeds.

Many shops have their own Nikolauses distributing sweets to children. Most are dressed in the usual Santa Claus outfits. Some look different, though. The strange blue creature is the mascot of a shop in Basel. They dressed him up with a Santa hat for the occasion and let him distribute sweets to the kids. Understandably the littlies were scared of him, though...

In one square, three men dressed up as The Three Holy Kings or Magi were collecting money for a charity project that helps homeless people. If anyone threw a coin into the hat, they would bang their sticks on the hollow ground of the little stage.


Harley Niggi-Näggi Parade


However: Forget everything you ever heard of reindeers, sleighbells and stuff. Modern Santa Claus rides a Harley!

The Harley parade takes place on the Saturday closest to St Nikolaus Day, December 6, at 5 p.m. The city centre stops its shopping activities, people line up on the sidewalks to see the „Harley Niggi-Näggi“ parade.

This event is organized by the North West Switzerland chapter of the Harley Davidson club to raise money for charity. They do a parade through the city centre to Marktplatz, where they will then collect donations.

About 40 or 50 bikers dress up and decorate their bikes with incredible imagination. You hardly see the bikes underneath all that Christmassy decoration. Absolutely hilarious and not to be missed.

Santa and Mrs Claus go biking together

How many Christmas trees fit on a Harley? At least four.

One guy dressed his motorbike in fur and turned it into a donkey. So shall we call it a "Harley Donkeyson"?

Another transported a whole herd of plush reindeer.

Other use artificial fir garlands, glittery ornaments, blinking chains of light in all colours.

In case anyone wonders about safety: Yes they do wear helmets underneath. Yes Police accompanies the parade and keeps spectators out of the way.

My recommended place to watch is in the middle part of Freie Straße (the pedestrianized shopping street) between Streitgasse and Bäumleingasse, because the parade passes here twice. They come from Barfüßerplatz, turn right into Freie straße, then do a loop through the side lanes and return along Freie Straße towards market square. The parade passes quickly, hence it’s good to see them a second time.


Posted by Kathrin_E 23:49 Archived in Switzerland Tagged christmas events basel Comments (0)

Mariastein Abbey: Switzerland’s No. 2 Place of Pilgrimage


Our women’s service club has a friendship link with a sister club in northern Switzerland. Once per year the two clubs meet for a day’s outing, taking turns which club plans and organizes our day together. Since we have been doing this for five decades, more and more ingenuity is needed to find new interesting destinations within easy reach, but so far both sides have always succeeded.

This year it was the Swiss ladies’ turn. They suggested Mariastein abbey. Mariastein is Switzerland’s second largest catholic pilgrimage centre (after Einsiedeln). The abbey is located southwest of Basel in the Jura hills, close to the French border, in a beautiful gentle valley. Or so it looks from the right side. The landscape is not as gentle as it seems, though. Right behind the abbey buildings there is a steep dropoff with almost vertical limestone cliffs.



And that’s what caused the existence of this place of pilgrimage. In the middle ages, a little boy and his mother came to this place to pasture their cattle. While the mother sought refuge from the midday sun and rested in a shady cave, the child ventured out by himself and fell off the cliff. This would have been his certain death, but he was miraculously saved. His terrified mother found him alive and well on the valley ground, happily picking flowers. The boy told her that the Madonna had saved him and told him she wanted to be venerated in this very spot. The ceiling frescoes in the church show the legendary salvation.

The cave was then turned into a chapel. More and more pilgrims came to visit the place and pray. A priest was installed, a church was built. The Reformation set a temporary end to the pilgrimage, but after a second miracle occurred – a young local nobleman fell off the cliff and was saved just like the little boy had been – it started all over again. In the mid 17th century a convent of Benedictine monks settled in Mariastein and built their monastery above the pilgrimage chapel. Mariastein is still a working convent with 20 monks who live here permanently.


Our friends picked us up at the station in Basel and took us to Mariastein by car. It must be easily doable to get there by public transport, too, judging from the number of post buses that passed through the main square during the day. The location is rural. A small settlement has grown round the abbey, but this can hardly be called a village.

After a quick morning coffee we had a tour of the abbey, guided by one of the monks. It started with a multimedia presentation that explained the history of the place as well as the daily life of the monks in the convent and the pilgrimage today.

Then we were taken to the convent buildings and the church. However, a hurried guide, and the things a human being has to do every now and then, got me into deep trouble. After the presentation I quickly went into the toilet, even told someone, and I surely didn’t linger – but when I left, everyone was gone and I found myself locked in.

No door would open, no phone or bell was there, and those of my dear friends whose numbers I had in my mobile had theirs turned off or left them at home.

Luckily the toilet window could be opened. It was too high for an unsporty fatty like me to climb out, but at least I was able to communicate with the world outside. I addressed three young people who were just passing, and they offered to help. The girl said, “We won’t go away until we got you out of here” – so sweet. They rang some bells until they got hold of an employee of the guesthouse who had the keys. Phew! May the Lord and the Madonna of Mariastein bless them!

Since I had no idea how to find my group but knew that the tour would take them into the church in the end, that’s where I went. This turned out a lucky decision in two respects: First, there was hardly anyone inside, so I caught some good photos of the church without people in them. Second, the group had finally noticed that I was missing and sent out a search party, who found me in the church. Phew again…



So I had missed the beginning of the tour but I got to see the cloister and a bit of the convent buildings. The corridors have beautiful baroque stucco ornaments on the ceiling and antique pieces of furniture.

Of course they do not take visitors into the residential quarters of the monks. But our guide showed us the board with the names of all monks where the weekly duties are marked, who holds mass, and who works in the kitchen or serves at the table. All of them take turns in these necessary household jobs.

The convent buildings and the cloister are partly baroque, partly 19th and 20th century. The open courtyard in the middle of the cloister is occupied by a baroque garden with boxwood hedges and a fountain in the centre. The basin is inhabited by goldfish and two water turtles – the convent’s pets?

The sundial in the cloister is meant as a memento mori, a reminder that life is not endless. The inscription says, “All (hours) wound, the last kills.”


The church’s interior has the appearance of a late baroque church, ornated with frescoes and stucco ornaments in white and gold. However, a lot of it is not as old as it looks. Between 1900 and 1934 the interior was refurbished in neobaroque style. This church interior is living proof that in catholic art, the baroque era lasted until the 20th century, if not beyond. The frescoes in the vaulted ceilings date from the 1930s! The choir is originally late gothic, as the vaults and the pointed arches in the windows show. The pulpit is an original baroque piece from the 18th century.



A splendid, elaborate wrought-iron gate divides the monks’ choir from the nave. The design uses tricks of perspective to make it appear three-dimensional. In fact it is entirely flat, as a view from the side shows. The congruent lines that seem to run towards a distant vanishing point and the rhythm of the lines pretend a third dimension which in reality isn’t there.

Only the middle part is really baroque, created in 1695. The side arches are more recent additions. A closer look reveals the date 1929 inserted into the craftwork.


In the church we got a special treat: Pater organist played us some pieces on the magnificent instrument on the western gallery. They also have a second, much smaller organ in the choir which is used for the monks’ canonical hours.

It was shortly before 12, and we stayed in the church to listen to the monks’ noon prayer. Five times a day they assemble in the choir to sing the hours according to the rules of the Benedictine order. The wrought-iron gate creates a transparent but impenetrable separation between the members of the convent and lay people in the nave.


Afterwards we went down to the actual pilgrims’ chapel. The sanctuary is located in the cave above the cliffs where mother and child are said to have rested. One has to walk down flights of stairs and through a long subterranean passage underneath the abbey church to reach it. The walls of the passage are covered in thousands of memorial plaques where people express their thanks for the Madonna’s help in all languages. The sacred image of the Madonna on the altar is the destination of the pilgrimage. We saw people praying fervently in front of it. (I never take photos of people praying, so all I have is a snapshot of the altar and the sacred image discreetly taken from my seat.)


Half an hour later we had an excellent lunch at the restaurant in Hotel zum Kreuz. Everything had been ordered in advance, went smoothly, and the food was very tasty.



Afterwards we had some time to play with. Our hosts suggested a walk along the Way of the Cross, which leads up the hillside to the small chapel of St Anna.


It was a wonderful spring day. The meadows were in bloom, all trees and bushes sported light green young leaves. On the higher mountaintops, though, there was still snow left from a recent dropdown in temperature that had also hit the blooming orchards round the abbey.

But now the sun was back and we enjoyed our walk. The hillside already offered a wide view over the valley.

When we reached the top of the ridge, it also opened up to the other side. The opposite slope was much steeper, as it is typical for the Jura hills. The view north and west extended over Basel to the snow-covered summits of Black Forest and Vosges. Landeskron castle occupies the neighbouring ridge. The walk was supposed to take half an hour but it took us more than one hour because we took so many photos.


A glimpse through the trees in northern direction...

... and zooming in the middle of the previous image: Basel and the snow-capped Black Forest in the background. The steeple of Münster church and Elisabethenkirche are visible. The huge Roche skyscraper is Basel's new landmark.

Landeskron Castle


Back down at the abbey, there was a wedding taking place at the church. The wedding party were posing all together in front of the church for the official wedding photo and video. A quadcopter was buzzing in the air to shoot a video from above.

It was an Indian wedding. Most of the ladies appeared in either saris or dresses made from the most colourful oriental fabrics. The bride wore a white bridal gown in European style, but bride and groom were wearing long flower wreaths according to Asian traditions (methinks). It was a colourful picture and I took the chance to catch some snapshots…


However, it was already time to return to Basel and catch our train back home. We are looking forward to next year’s meeting with our Swiss friends – let’s see what ideas we will come up with.

Posted by Kathrin_E 06:03 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel mariastein Comments (2)

Arlesheim: On Basel's Doorstep


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 museum

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.


Posted by Kathrin_E 20:48 Archived in Switzerland Tagged switzerland basel arlesheim Comments (3)

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