Ubiquitous Swiss trams pass near the five-star Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois.
  • Ubiquitous Swiss trams pass near the five-star Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois.
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Behind Basel, Switzerland’s bourgeois persona is a mind-blowing history currently experiencing its 70th anniversary.

Inside the walled-off compound where multinational pharmaceutical giant Novartis (formed when Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz merged) is headquartered is a futuristic glassy-steel building designed by architect Frank Gehry, who created L.A.’s curvy Disney Concert Hall.

Rudie Suter, my guide who specializes in Basel’s modern architecture, points into the distance, telling me that on April 16, 1943, in one of the less ostentatious structures, Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally dosed himself with Lyserg-saure-diathylamid – or LSD – which he’d synthesized in 1938.

Three days later, on what’s now called “Bicycle Day,” Hofmann deliberately dropped 250 micrograms of the psychoactive substance, rode home on a bike and experienced “altered perceptions” amidst a “spontaneous visionary experience”:

  • “Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move… My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways.
  • Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness… I was taken to another world, another place, another time… unprecedented colors and plays of shapes persisted behind my closed eyes.
  • Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.”

According to Hofmann’s book, LSD – My Problem Child, the following morning he awoke feeling:

  • “A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity...”

While the rest of Europe was at war, in this neutral Swiss city wedged on the Rhine between occupied France and Nazi Germany, Hofmann – who’d been trying to build a better aspirin – got more than he bargained for.

Near the Big Pharma campus I spied a yellow car that seemed to lurk down a side street. Rudi explained it was a “drug relief” vehicle, deployed not to bust users – as one would expect in Drug War America – but, astonishingly, to provide addicts with clean syringes to ensure hygiene. How appropriate for acid’s birthplace!

Beneath Basel’s stuffy surface lies a psychedelic sensibility and higher consciousness. Psychologist and “collective unconscious” symbologist C.G. Jung spent part of his childhood there. Dadaist Jean Tinguely, sculptor of pure flights of fancy, grew up there.

Switzerland’s third-most populous city is an intellectual and arts center, home to: The oldest Swiss university. Theater Basel, a top venue for plays, operas and ballets. Museums. The Alpine nation’s largest Mardi Gras-like carnival, Basel Fasnacht, with mind-bending costumes and uninhibited merriment.

Indeed, Basel Tourism’s official motto is “culture unlimited.”

Basel's well-preserved Old Town. This medieval home is still lived in today.

Basel's well-preserved Old Town. This medieval home is still lived in today.

On another tour, guide Annelies Bachle notes Basel’s traditions go back 500+ years to the Renaissance. Circa 1509, botanist, humanist and astrologist Paracelsus studied and taught medicine at the University of Basel, established in 1460. Just as Hofmann sought to relieve headaches, Paracelsus created laudanum, a psychotropic for easing bodily pain.

A Pharmaceutical Historical Museum now exists in the former home of a prominent printer whose physician was Paracelsus. Dutch Enlightenment thinker Erasmus also lived in this house with its spacious courtyard, where elixirs, herbariums, remedies, et al are now displayed.

As aromatic as Basel’s name sounds, however, it’s not named after the herb, but derived from the word for “kingship” in Latin and ancient Greek.

Annelies leads me through Old Town’s narrow winding cobblestone streets, with Middle-Aged half-timbered buildings above the Rhine.

A tram approaches Basel's Kremlin-like Rathaus, or city hall.

A tram approaches Basel's Kremlin-like Rathaus, or city hall.

A fountain is topped by the statue of a hat-and-jacket clad monkey eating grapes near an outdoor cafe. Businesses use traditional signs with iron images designed by medieval “Mad Men” to advertise their purposes, such as the Schnabel Restaurant. Trams whisk passengers past the ornate reddish Rathaus (left) with its large clock, painted façade and wooden window shutters designed with Vasarely-like op-art. Basel’s municipal building was first established near this marketplace site in the 14th century, looking to untutored eyes like a mini-Kremlin.

Statues of St. George slaying a dragon with a lance adorn a red sandstone wall of the Münster, elevated on a hillside overlooking the Rhine. There, Annelies deciphers the medieval symbology’s religious significance. Another statue on the cathedral’s exterior wall depicts St. Martin rending his garment to share it with a beggar, while grotty gargoyles serve the dual function of funneling rainwater and warding off evil spirits.

Amidst brilliantly hued stained glass windows are tombs inside the church and courtyard, including a stony statue of Heinrich V in repose in full body armor, a sword beside him, a lion at his mail sabaton-clad feet. The emperor at the center of 1122’s Concordat of Worms had become meat for worms ages ago.

This plus a bronze skull atop a drum remind worshippers of man’s mortality (left), as does another gigantic clock above St. Martin’s statue, ticking our minutes away. The Münster’s twin towers, originally consecrated in 1019, are almost 1,000 years old.

I explored LSD’s hometown by foot and tram – not by bicycle. Nevertheless, I could “picture myself in a boat on a river,” cruising the Rhine for three hours aboard a Basler Personenschiffahrt. I did not see “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” “cellophane flowers,” “tangerine trees and marmalade skies,” but I ate sumptuous breakfast quickly followed by lunch buffet on this Sunday brunch voyage.

The cruise began with something as dazzling as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," floating through Basel’s glorious Old Town and, momentarily, back in time before the sound and fury of our high-tech era. After the boat turns about and heads down the Rhine, past Germany and France, we pass cottages poised along riverbanks with long fishing rods and nets.

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