Wednesday, October 30, 2013

a day in the basler herbstmesse

note: this is the third of a series of posts I'm writing about Switzerland and the places I've been. Solely for the purpose of having fun (and to exercise my travel writing skills) I'm going to write about it in second person. Which means you, the reader, are semi-virtually coming with me. bring good shoes.

No one in Basel has really been able to describe Herbstmesse to you... apparently it's not exactly like anything that we have in America, besides which it only exists in Basel so there is nothing to compare it to in
the other Swiss cities. What you have managed to glean from the various stories is threefold:
1) Herbstmesse is a mixture of carnival, market, tourist attraction, historical celebration, and fair.
2) Herbstmesse is exclusive. Kääskiechli, Rosenküchlein, Messmogge, the Riesenrad... apparently all of them can be found at the Herbstmesse, and only at the Herbstmesse.
3) Herbstmesse is something to which you absolutely, positively, without a doubt, must go.
And so, on Saturday morning, you dutifully lace up your sneakers, grab your camera, and step out the door. You are on an exploration.

Riding a tram into the heart of Basel, you have plenty of time to look around and observe the differences. At first glance, there aren't that many-- it's a normal Saturday afternoon with people and cars and trams ferrying everyone back and forth through the city-- but then you look harder. And you notice the amount of people.

Saturdays are always fairly busy, because most stores in Switzerland are closed on Sundays and that only really leaves Saturday to get weekend-type-things done. But today is CRAZY. There are people everywhere, in the train station and in the grocery store and in the middle of the street (which makes the trams considerably slower, as they have to slow down for every Swiss person who decides to walk over the tram tracks).

As you near your first stop (Barfüsserplatz, for those of you who know Basel), the reason for all the people becomes clearer. There are amusement park rides and cotton candy stands and everything that would normally be at a carnival, except Swiss-ified. This is wonderful when it comes to the food (little cheese pies fresh out of the oven? Yes please!) but not so wonderful when it comes to the prices (10 francs for a stick of chocolate-dipped strawberries? Um, maybe not).
There are multiple different places throughout Basel where Herbstmesse is celebrated. Barfüsserplatz sits in the middle of the city, hawking desserts and balloons and rides. Petersplatz has a market with a hundred or so stalls selling everything from jewelry to food to ornaments to candles. Claraplatz holds the classic amusement park rides, including one for 12 francs that swings you at a dizzying speed over the city. Munsterplatz has the gigantic Riesenrad (Ferris wheel) and can be seen from almost anywhere in Basel. Messeplatz is full of new rides and an assortment of foods. All of them are definitely worth the visit.

Officially, Herbstmesse doesn't start until 12 noon, when a tiny church in the middle of the city rings its bells. True to this tradition, none of the rides are running yet. There are ridiculously long lines of children in front of the biggest rides, because another tradition is that the first ride on each "Bahn" is free. They're waiting anxiously for a signal from the ride operator.

You, though, are looking for something else. And so you climb up the stairs that overlook the square and stand.

And then it comes. The bells... quiet at first, but then louder, more insistent, clearer.
Everyone goes silent for a moment.
Just like that, Herbstmesse has begun!

The rides hiss and clank to a start and the Ferris wheel starts to move and the other clocks in the city chime together and the children shriek in excitement.

And you wait,
listening to the bells,
listening to the rides,
listening to the people.

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