Why Basel’s best kept secret is a medieval affair
“Aaaargh!“ yells the savage man, furiously shaking his wet tree at a young child. The child recoils for a moment, wiping the water from his face. The savage man moves on, thinking he has won, when seconds later, with a swift movement of his hand, the small child snatches one of the most sought after apples of that day from the man’s wide, leafy belt. There is a strange sensation going about the crowd as you watch, and the January air does not help. It almost feels like you are being let in on a secret, and that you probably should not be here. The drums fill your ears, and you see the griffin approach.
On reading this one might wonder where in the world this could be. Africa? The Caribbean? South America? Wrong. Think a bit less sun, and a bit more chocolate.
Switzerland is quite a peculiar country – it is located in the heart of Europe and yet it is not part of the EU, it is only half the size of Scotland and yet it insists on having four official languages – and just when you thought it could not get any stranger, here we are, in the middle of Basel, watching a lion, a griffin and a savage man dance in one of the oldest traditions of the city.
What we are witnessing here is the day of the griffin, or ‘Vogel Gryff’, as the natives know it. Christine Wälti from Basel Tourism describes the Vogel Gryff as being ‘first and foremost an event for the locals’. And she is right in saying so – unlike the carnival of Basel, which each year attracts waves of people from all over the world, you really have to be an insider to know about this one. Originally three separate events, the Vogel Gryff is the coming together and celebrating of the three honourable societies of Kleinbasel, or ‘little Basel’, which describes everything on the right side of the Rhine. Being in an age-old rivalry with Grossbasel (‘big Basel’ of course), you will never see any of the heraldic figures facing leftwards, let alone setting foot in it during their procession.
Being a spectator during this yearly event is like travelling back in time. As Wälti points out, processions of the honourable societies of Kleinbasel date back to the 14th century. And where best to travel back in time than in medieval Basel? The city itself has a history that goes back to ancient times, but it is really the medieval times that have left its mark on the city. But do not be fooled by appearances – after a devastating earthquake in the mid-14th century most of the city had to be rebuilt, so that most of what you see is not as old as it might look.
While you are in Basel, do not pass up an opportunity to visit the Basler Münster, an impressive cathedral from which, on a good day, you can see as far as Germany!
From the Münster make sure to go down to the Rhine, where you can take a ‘Fähri’ – a little boat that uses the Rhine’s current to take you to the other side. Be sure to keep your eyes open, as you might see a familiar figure somewhere!
But back to the Vogel Gryff. You have seen the savage man ride up the Rhine and dip his pine tree in the water to scare off naughty kids, you have seen the lion, the griffin and the savage man dance their traditional dances in front of the three masters of the honourable societies of Kleinbasel, you have seen the drummers and the standard-bearers accompany the figures along their way, and now you watch them as they make their way into the heart of little Basel, getting up to God-knows-what behind closed doors until the small hours call an end to this oddity of a holiday, and all that is left to do, is wait until next year when the lion, the griffin and the savage man will once again dance to the drummers’ tune.
Vogel Gryff: The next Vogel Gryff takes place on 20th January 2012 and kicks off at around 10.30am along the Rhine
Language: Unlike most countries, Switzerland has four official languages and none of them are English. Basel belongs to the German-speaking part, which is also the biggest.
Currency: Switzerland is not in the EU and therefore does not have the Euro. Local currency is the Swiss franc, but you can pay with Euros on request in most places.
How to get there: Basel shares an Airport with Germany and France, which is located just outside the city. Easyjet offers direct flights from Edinburgh and London Gatwick, four and seven days a week respectively.