Sweat, Sun, and Stroganoff: A Run through Basel

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


On our first afternoon in Basel, it was 5:30pm and I was at a deadlock. I was hungry, I was tired, and dinner started in half an hour. However I had also not run in the last two days and it was beautiful outside.  I also knew there was no way I could convince myself to get out there to run after a nice meal of beef stroganoff.

I slipped on my running shoes and started off down the winding cobblestone path from our hostel to the eastern bank of the Rhine River. I started to stride out running along the path, the river flowing swiftly to my left. Usually when I run my thoughts come in snippets – sometimes I think about my day, sometimes I think about dinner, sometimes I just think about breathing. But when you run along the Rhine for the first time, it commands your attention.

I crossed over the streetcar tracks, dodging several bikers. In Basel the concept of “right-of-way” is very different than in the US, and jaywalking is a way of life. Pedestrians, trains, cars and bikes all are meshed together in a sort of chaotic dance; traffic signals are secondary, a raised hand and eye contact with a biker or train conductor goes a long way in granting you safe passage across an intersection.

As I continue on, I start to pick up the pace as the path widens and the road verges away to the right. I pass kids playing soccer in a park, teens gathered around the “pretzel and beer shack”, and two elderly men sit at a public chessboard consumed by their game. It seems that the entire city, young and old, was out enjoying the evening. As I think about how many American cities lack this sense of intergenerational connection, how our places don’t always draw us together, I nearly run into a family picnicking by the path. “Scuzzi,” I say as I sidestep a plate of salad. The family doesn’t reply, and it isn’t until a few hundred meters down the path that I realize my mistake; in Basel they speak German, not Italian. Slightly embarrassed, I continue on through the park and I am faced with my first real choice. The park followed a canal to the right and an asphalt path veered to the left skirting the edge of the Rhine. I turn left.

The scenery changes instantly. This new section of river seems to be a remnant of Basel’s industrial past. Barges sit tied to the shore and shipping crates and cranes form a wall to my right. I think that the Rhine has always been the lifeblood of Basel; the same water that ferried peasants across the river and fed the chemical plants now acts as a common ground for the city’s citizens. However, the activity along the bank tells me that the Rhine has not died as a port.  This role is still important to the city of Basel, but the minds of the people have turned from heavy industry. The wealth of the city seems not to be measured in GDP, but in GDH, Gross Domestic Happiness. The path along the docks stretches on before me but I stop and turn around, my legs feel a little weak from walking all across Europe and my stomach is growling.

In an effort to get back to dinner as quickly as possible I ratchet up the pace again, retracing my steps back along the docks and past the tennis courts to the park. Nothing has changed. People still line the shore and the smell of food comes wafting over from the “beer and pretzel shack.” The sinking sun bathes the riverside park in warmth, embracing the park which to me now seems like a communal beltway – an exhibit where the civic nature of Basel, past, present, and future is on display. I hurry back to the hostel, ready to take the world’s fastest shower before devouring my dinner. At the alleyway I slow to a trot and turn around to look back over the Rhine, the heart of a true civic city.

This up-close and personal observation served me well the next day when we visited the University of Basel and toured the ancient part of the city and its modern-day sustainability practices to begin our transition from energy to water. The Rhine River I had observed was part of the lecture presented by Patricia Burkhardt-Holm, Professor of Ecology and Head of the Program, Man, Society, and the Environment. Professor Holm shared her research on the impact of water quality and the health of fish in the waters of the Rhine and other rivers around Europe. We followed her presentation with a tour of the ancient part of the city with Fabian Klaber (where we saw homes and buildings built in the 14th and 15th centuries), lunch, and a sustainable energy tour by Nathalie Martin from the Department of Energy and Environment for Basel. These ushered in the new topic of water and also concluded our trip to Switzerland’s third largest city, a great combination of old, new, and sustainable.  At 18:04 on the dot, our train left the station for the four and a half hour ride back to Riva San Vitale.

Guest contributor:  Tyler Pitt

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