One of Basel’s most traditional events is the Herbstmesse, the fall fair. By traditional, I mean it’s been around for a long time, in this case well over 500 years. Five hundred and forty-three, in fact.
According to the City of Basel website, “On 11 July 1471, at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg, Emperor Friedrich III granted the Mayor of Basel, Hannsen von Berenfels, the right to hold the Basel Autumn fair «in perpetuity». It starts 14 days before St. Martin’s day.”
The first day of the fair is traditionally the Saturday before the 30th of October. The fair’s opening is signalled by the Fair Bell of the Church of Saint Martin at exactly 12 o’clock. This being Switzerland, exactly 12 o’clock means it is rung at exacly 12 o’clock!
Not ones to miss the oportunity to keep a tradition going, we popped by on Sunday. It was a glorious, warm fall day, so all the more reason to go. The fair now spreads through several locations in the city, but we limited ourselves to two: Petersplatz and Barfusserplatz. Barfusserplatz is mostly rides and food vendors, but at Petersplatz, it is indeed a market fair, with booths selling all sorts of gifts and goods and, best of all, yummy treats.
“Do I have marshmallow on my nose?”, asked my daughter after sampling a delightfully fluffy, coconut and chocolate covered, sugary confection. (Yes, she did). The raclette grills were out in force, as were the many stalls offering traditional Mandelbrot (almond bread, much like gingerbread), carmelized nuts, creamy caramels, and chocolate covered fruits. A few new traditions have snuck in over the years: Jeffrey’s has been offering Malaysian treats for a good ten years or so, and now there is a Chinese food hall as well. But Bratwurst stands and sweets stands still predominate.
I have no idea what 18th century and earlier amusement rides looked liked, but the modern Herbstmesse has variations on all the standard rides of today: Frog Hopper, Giant Swings, Pirate Ship, Mousetrap. The crowning glory is, however, the ferris wheel. It’s always a fun moment to notice when the ferris wheel appears on the horizon, bit by bit as it is assembled. I was watching for it this year, but it surprised me by appearing fully formed one day last week. It rises high above the Munster and is visible from far away. The views from the top, on a clear day, are spectacular.
The fair lasts two weeks, and then the great wheel will be dismantled, to appear next year and mark the 544th edition of the Herbstmesse.