Switzerland: Europe’s art gallery

Taking the tilting train from Basel to Geneva, Michael Edwards discovers why Switzerland is an art and culture lovers’ paradise.

Rothko at Fondation Beyeler in Basel

“Unbelievable,” whispered a visitor to Basel’s Fondation Beyeler, walking through work from Bacon, Cezanne, Degas, Giacometti, Mondrain, Monet, Picasso, Rothko and Van Gogh. On top of the queue-free, crowd-free and delightful ambience, Switzerland’s galleries – generously funded by banks, pharmaceuticals and private collectors – are spared an “exit-through-the-gift-shop” mentality.

“Art should not dominate nature,” collector Ernst Beyeler had insisted when he briefed Renzo Piano, of Shard fame, prior to the design of the pavilion-like Fondation Beyeler sunk into Japanese style gardens, back in the 1990s. Come summer an external lily pond, seen through a huge picture window framing the landscape, is an echo of Monet’s lily pond on the gallery wall.

Museum Tingeuly, Basel

Similarly the Tinguely Museum, leaning out over the fast-flowing Rhine in Basel, blends with its natural setting. This is a museum where Jean Tinguely’s kinetic creations made from mechanical debris bang, clunk, rattle and squeak – frequently powered by recycled hair-dryer or lawnmower motors. A random drawing device and a meta-music machine, whose discordant symphonies never repeat, typify Tinguely’s avant-garde output.

Tinguely, once imprisoned for speeding, was a Formula 1 fan, but as his racing driver friends lost their lives, he became melancholic, creating an assemblage of a mangled motor, and a mournful sculpture of five veiled widows which he kept in his bedroom.

Just one minute away from frequent buses and trams, the serene and spacious Swissotel is the perfect base. Walk across the Rhine to the recently extended Kunstmusuem – where functional grey becomes strangely vibrant – to appreciate an art collection of impressive chronological depth.

Volkhaus Herzog De Meuron Basel

Take lunch in the shaded courtyard of the Volkhaus, a 1920s workers’ commune redesigned by architects Herzog and de Meuron, – now a popular venue for jazz concerts – before dining on local specialities of asparagus and perch at Atelier in the remarkably well-preserved Old Town.

The journey south to Geneva, running along the shores of Lake Geneva with white-peaked Alps as the backdrop, is one of Europe’s great rail trips. Not only does a Swiss Pass provide unlimited bus, train and rail travel it also offers entry to numerous museums. In a country where being on time is already being late, the joined-up thinking of the public transport system is a joy.

Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest at the Musee d’Ethnographie Geneva is a disturbing yet mind-blowing exhibition, the like of which the world has never seen before. Despite five centuries of genocide, despite explorers deciding the indigenous population were not worthy of compassion, despite machete colonisation, despite every other child being taken by missionaries to be “civilised”, despite chain-saws disrupting the jungle sound-track,  the shamans’ believe that the numerous spirits of Amazonia will prevail is still uplifting.

The very best time to visit the Quartier de Bains, Geneva’s home to modern art, is for one of La Nuit de Bains held three times a year, the next takes place on September 15th 2016. Private galleries open new exhibitions, so sip a glass of wine as you talk to the artists. Learn of the frustrations of studios too small for their grandiose ambitions, failed projects they destroyed in despair and rushes of inspiration that compelled them to work through the night.

N’v’Y Hotel with its boho-chic decor, is ideally located just minutes from railway station and the yellow water taxis that cut through the chill, clear waters of Lake Geneva. Cross the lake, snapping pictures of the 140m high Jet d’Eau, then walk-up hill, eagles soaring overhead, to the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Cologny and its collection of historic manuscripts

Despairing of the bleak weather, as 1816 was the year without a summer after Java’s volcano exploded, a young man suggested, “We shall all write a ghost story.” The group which included Lord Byron and Percy Shelley realised that it was 18 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankstein which had immense potential. See her writing develop through the draft manuscript, with her brother’s suggestions, at the Bodmar’s “Frankstein creation of darkness” exhibition.

Ravioli burrata at La Closerie in Cologny

Taking a last lunch on the sun-trap terrace of La Closerie, a very relaxed Italian restaurant in Cologny, looking down past Geneva’s urban beach and marina, onto the Old Town and its cathedral you cannot help but feel that Switzerland with its stunning galleries, sophisticated hotels, gourmet food and smooth transport links is the perfect destination for art and culture lovers.

Further information about this trip

Research your own journey at www.myswitzerland.com

Find flights at www.swiss.com

Visit www.swiss-travel-pass.com for more information on the Swiss Pass

www.swissotel.com/hotels/basel/ is a comfortable base for Basel

Learn more about a cosy room in Geneva at www.hotelnvygeneva.com/en

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 10:00 am Europe