6 places to see in the tri-border region

Where France, Germany and Switzerland meet…

… to form one of the most fertile and diverse regions in central Europe. The best base of operations to explore this tri-border area is Freiburg, about equidistant to Basel and Straßbourg and itself a beautiful and prosperous student-dominated city of just over 300.000 people.

tl;dr: The cutest town of France, many half-timbered houses, if you want it: three countries in a day, Papa Rhine connecting it all, an animal that is not a beaver, churches  to big for my camera, snowkiting in the black forest.

Freiburg

Freiburg is not only the city with the most hours of sunshine in Germany but was the first majour city to elect a mayor from the green party – nearly 30 years ago – and is still ruled by one. The funny thing is, in general the people in the south are quite conservative and the green party’s focus on preserving the beauty of their country-side paired with an “I-don’t-really-care-what-you-do-at-home-attitude” has led to a unique form progressive conservatism. In Freiburg itself, one of the hints that this town is a bit different, that is easiest to spot is the fact, that there are no cars in the city centre. A ring road leads around with a lot of huge and rather affordable garages, but inside the ring it’s all bikes, pedestrians and trams.

The swabian gate of Freiburg's City wall, seen from Schlossberg

The swabian gate of Freiburg’s City wall, seen from Schlossberg

Another thing I notice is the number of arthouse cinemas. People in Freiburg go the movies nearly three times as often as the rest of the country. Plus it has an impressive selection of Bars, Clubs and cozy venues for a city of this size, but this is what happens if nearly 10% of your citizens are university students.

Skylight/interior of the Villa Colombi in Freiburg.

Skylight/interior of the Villa Colombi in Freiburg.

Make sure to pay a visit to the Freiburg cathedral/minster. From it’s top you have a good view over the valley of the Dreisam river in which Freiburg sits, if the weather permits you can see the Vosges mountains and the Schwarzwald (black forest – you know, cuckoo clocks and everything). If you happen to be up there on the hour, you should make sure to some form of noise-cancelling equipment on you, otherwise you’ll need some fresh ears. Some of the bells in the tower are so huge that you can fell their sound in every bone, nice tingling effect, though. The medieval church-windows were paid for, by the guilds of Freiburg, so they not only show scenes from the bible but show the tools of their trade as well; scissors for the tailors, hammer and chisel for the builders, bread for bakers – you get the idea.

Blue Bridge and Herz-Jesu-Church in Freiburg friday night.

Blue Bridge and Herz-Jesu-Church in Freiburg friday night.

Just across from the station via a 100 year old steel bridge is a district with lots of Bars and Cafés where people meet to hang out and get themselves up and running for a night of dancing. Of course there is the Schlossberg, really good food can be had at Markthalle Freiburg and the small streets of the old-town sport many small design-oriented shops. Everything is clean and orderly, people are friendly but instantly keep their distance with strangers, and like I said, more sunshine than anywhere else in Germany.

Vitra Design Museum/Weil am Rhein

About an hour’s drive south of Freiburg sits the border town of Weil-am-Rhein. Her best known feature is the fact that it is the home of swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra design. Vitra is THE company for Bauhaus-style furniture and became famous as the firm that introduced the brothers Eames to Europe. Over the years they bought licences for many iconic design pieces and developed a very distinctive style with their in-house designs. What’s really unique though is the museum and the fact every single building on campus has been designed by a world-class-celebrity architect like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid or Herzog & de Meuron. What created this incredible density of high-profile architecture in the first place was a huge fire in 1981 that destroyed nearly everything including the company. The museum itself is not really big, so it won’t really take you more than an hour. But, there is the showroom just across the street which is just as impressive as the museum itself – and it’s free – plus a museum’s shop that really drives home the fact that compared to people who can actually afford to buy Vitra furniture I am seriously underfunded not to say poor as f*#%. If you’re really into architecture I suggest you join one of their guided tours

Basel

Stitched panorama of Basel's riverside

Stitched panorama of Basel’s riverside

From Weil-am-Rhein it’s just a stone’s throw to Basel an another country. The space between is mostly filled with outlet stores and other assorted commercial compounds. The day of our visit the river Rhein is a swift-flowing brown mass and already 200m wide. One bank of the river is dominated by cute, narrow houses that look they are supported more by their neighbours than their own strength. A little farther on, the old-town starts and the land rises to a hill covered in huge 18th century mansions. Terraces behind the cathedral overlook the stream and create an almost mediterranean feeling even on this grey and gloomy day. Sadly the city’s biggest museum Kunstmuseum Basel will be closed till the end of April 2016 due to construction works, so we only a small part of the contemporary collection that is shown in a side-building. Since we didn’t have any Swiss money on us, we decided to just take a look at the cathedral and come back another time with less wind and more warmth to enjoy a really long stroll through Basel.

Feldberg

On the first day with sunshine on this trip we decide to go somewhere high up and take a look around. The Schwarzwald or black forest are the highest mountains in this part of Germany and the highest of them is Feldberg with appr. 1500m. All in all there wasn’t much snow this winter but a week before it snowed enough to dip the mountainside in blanket of white. A little more than an hours drive from Freiburg Feldberg is the closest ski arena and another reason why the quality of live is exceptionally high in the federal state of Baden-Würtemberg. The arena consists only of a handful of lifts but for a quick weekend ski trip its perfect. We leave our car below the cable car and climb to the top. One thing that sets this spot apart is the huge snow-kiting arena. Kiters swoosh through a large depression taking advantage of a constant side-wind. Some of them are really good. All the way on the top is a viewpoint that lets you see to the end of the world it seems. In truth it’s only Mont Blanc; impressive enough, it is over 200km away. And if you are looking for truly ugly souvenirs, you are at the right place as well, I’m still dreaming about the cuckoos clocks with the roving eyeballs sometimes, and they are no nice dreams.

Colmar

Colmar is sometimes referred to as the most picturesque town in France – deservedly so, I might add, although I’m sure there are dozens of towns whose people would disagree. Let us just say that is insanely cute. I imagine if you told Walt Disney to create a town that looks like the prototypical mid-european medieval town it would look exactly like this. Literally 100s of half-timbered houses create a feeling like you are in a giant open-air museum and it seems unlikely that actual humans live and work in these houses and not cast-members of a huge middle-ages country fair. Of course it has a couple of churches and the old customs building that you would expect, but what makes Colmar really impressive is the high number of wealthy citizens dwellings constructed some 5-600 years ago. Most of these citizens were prosperous traders that were successful in a time when commoners didn’t have a lot of institutional influence, so to demonstrate their power they built beautiful mansions with lavish decor like the House of Heads or the Maison Pfister. Little venice is a district criss-crossed by little canals with generally smaller houses and a covered market that offers all the culinary bounty the French larders have to offer.  A little surprising was the local wildlife. Walking down the canal I see something that looks like a beaver at first glance, but missed the typical tail, a muskrat – a rat with beavers teeth and the size of a really large cat (see photos below). Eating in Colmar isn’t exactly cheap, but well worth the expenditure. If all this intoxicating scenery and history isn’t enough for you, you can still visit the Unterlinden Museum, with the famous Isenheim altar piece and a huge collection from the 15th century to contemporary artists.

Strassburg


Our last excursion led us to Strasbourg the capital of French flags. Well in truth its only home to a lot of European institutions which are mostly located outside the centre. But it seems the French try to offset this internationality by adorning every other building that has a remotely official function with at least two giant flags. Sitting directly on the left bank of the Rhine that forms the border with Germany here, Strasbourg is a city dominated by water as well. The old-town including the famous cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg sits on a island in the Ill a tributary of the Rhine. The western entrance to the city is guarded by three quais with square watchtowers. You can walk more or less every street on that island in an hour or two but make sure to take your time with the cathedral and the Palais Rohan just behind it. For a while the church was the highest building in Europe with nearly 150m and facades that are home to so many statues. It looks a bit like they had a huge surplus of christian figurines and just built a house that was big enough for them all. For food, believe it or not we had burgers (please don’t tell my old French teacher, she will retroactively lower my grade if she knew) and it was really, really good: L’atelier d’Grandpere, alternatively you could enter one of the many bakeries, the region is famous for its bread and brioche.

 

 

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