Basel : Barfüsserplatz and the Historisches Museum
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The focus of the Old Town is hectic Barfüsserplatz, crisscrossed by trams and overlooked by the soaring pointed-arch windows of the Barfüsserkirche. This elegant white church, built by and named after the bare-footed Franciscans, dates from the fourteenth century, was deconsecrated in the eighteenth, and is now home to the impressive Historisches Museum (Mon & Wed–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5, free on first Sun of month), devoted to documenting Basel’s cultural pre-eminence during the Middle Ages. Once you’ve absorbed the stunning detail of the monumental choir stall (1598) facing into the church, the highlight of the ground floor is the collection of sumptuous fifteenth-century tapestries (press the button to raise the protective blind shielding each one) – these vivid, wall-sized pieces were woven to decorate private houses and churches, specifically in Basel and Strasbourg, and are exceptionally rare, both for their artistic quality and their excellent condition. Their imagery frequently concentrates on woodsmen, fabulous animals and courtly lovers – only three of the sixteen pieces show religious imagery – and one of the best is no. 235 (from 1490), the allegorical Garden of Love, showing two lovers playing cards inside a summer pavilion: the man has just slapped down a card with the words, “That last play of yours was a good one,” while the woman nods in anticipatory triumph: “And it’s won me the game!” Downstairs you’ll find an excellent detailed survey of Basel’s history, including a board locating ancient buildings, maps and globes galore, the original 1640 Lällekeenig, and bedchambers and elaborate wood-panelled rooms from the seventeenth century. Don’t miss the touching tapestry no. 237, a cushion cover from Strasbourg (1510) showing a revealingly dressed woman of the forest who’s been abandoned by a lover and now nurses a unicorn on her lap with the words “I’ve given the world my time, now I must live here in misery.” Head to the back, and you’ll come across a side room displaying the treasure of Basel cathedral, including two stunning silver-and-copper busts dating from 1270–1325, of St Pantalus (no. 251) and, with an even, almond-eyed gaze, a Buddhic St Ursula (no. 253). On a new upstairs level is a series of paintings showing the Dance of Death. The sequence originally formed part of a sixty-metre-long mural, which covered the inside of the cemetery wall of Basel’s Dominican convent, until its demolition in 1805. The mural depicts, in a graphic reminder of human mortality, an array of people of all different ages and professions on a macabre procession, which leads, eventually, to the cemetery’s charnel house.

West of Barfüsserplatz, lanes wind up to the beautiful Leonhardskirche, a Gothic construction built after the great 1356 earthquake with attractive portholed windows and an elaborate cat’s cradle of vaulting within. The gallery is accessible, but only up the tightest, narrowest spiral staircase imaginable.

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