It is no dream

Come to Basel for a bit of Zionist history, stay for the chocolate!

Basel, Switzerland 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Basel, Switzerland 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you will it, it is no dream - and that is exactly what happened in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1897 when Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Israel, held the world's first Zionist Congress. Some 200 people from 17 different countries gathered to discuss and lay the foundation for the future State of Israel. Basel is a charming city to visit and a way to touch past greatness. Herzl stayed in the elegant Three Kings Hotel, or "Les Trois Rois," ( for the durations of the meetings. Today, his hotel room is rented out and commemorated with a plaque inside. While small, it is elegantly furnished, and boasts a good sized balcony. Herzl stayed here, and so did Napoleon, Dickens, Voltaire and Metternich. If you are not staying at the hotel, have lunch there, and chances are the hotel staff will be more than happy to allow you inside the Herzl room, if it's not occupied. The Brasserie Les Trois Rois restaurant ( is fantastic, with exquisite artwork decorating the walls and lovely view of the scenic Rhine River. Don't forget to order desert; it's worth the calories. A convenient place to stay is Hotel Basel, which serves a hearty typical European breakfast. It is located mere blocks away from one of the city's main squares, the Münsterplatz, where you can buy colorful fruits and vegetables, sample the cheeses and enjoy fresh bread from individual stands. ONE OF Switzerland's smaller cities, Basel, is easy to get around by walking or using the well marked tram system, which employs electronic signs to alert commuters in exactly how many minutes the tram will arrive. Several sites are worth visiting. The Zionist Congress itself was held at the Stadtcasino concert hall. It's not officially open to the public, but tourists can often find their way into the main stage area. On the right of the stage there is a plaque that reads: "On Theodor Herzl's initiative and under his guidance, the first Zionist organization was established leading to the foundation of the State of Israel." Spend some time in Basel's Jewish museum. In the courtyard, visitors can see fragments of Jewish tombstones that date back to 1222. Inside are letters from Herzl and Jewish artifacts hundreds of years old, including kiddush cups, ketubot and a huppa. Also on display is a broken ring with a menora engraved on it that's thousands of years old. The Great Synagogue in Basel was built in 1868, and is a national landmark. It was expanded and renovated many times. Inside there are two synagogues, a choir and mikve. Next door is the community center, library and day school. The community center's basement is home to the cheerful and brightly lit Topaz (, a kosher restaurant offering a variety of tasty choices. Because of Topaz's location, don't be surprised if on the way out from dinner, you find yourself invited into an Israeli folk dance class. The Israeli teacher yelling out in instructions in German is warm and friendly, and the class is filled with a delightful group of locals. NEARBY IS Israel Park, a grove of 40 trees presented to Basel on Israel's 40th anniversary by Chaim Herzog, the JNF/KKL and the State of Israel. Basel, the once walled city, is peppered with fountains, pretty in the summer and dreamlike in the winter when they turn into icy sculptures. One can wander in little streets and breathe in the tantalizing scent of freshly baked bread. If you ask the baker, he might let you try your hand at twisting and turning the dough into loaves. Switzerland is known for chocolate, and Basel is no exception. There are exquisite windows filled with overwhelmingly amounts of delicious chocolates, cookies and marzipan. Art is everywhere in Basel, from the city's architecture to its numerous museums. Check out the Museum of Fine Art, where a Rodin sculpture in the entrance greets visitors. The museum is open and airy, and its exhibits include a Calder mobile and works by Chagall and Picasso. The 20th-century art on show include examples of Cubism (Picasso, Braque, Gris), German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Basel, filled with history, beauty and the birthplace of modern Zionism is worth a visit. Who knows? Perhaps rubbing shoulders with historical greatness will be inspirational. If nothing else, the cobblestoned winding streets are filled with interesting shops, and the vast array of art that litters the city from fountains to finely decorated chocolates will certainly put a smile on your face. For more information on Basel, visit Switzerland Tourism's Web site: Masada Siegel lives in Scottsdale. She can be reached at © Masada Siegel, 2009