Castle Run

On a grey Sunday morning at the end of January, I woke up feeling a run. This does not happen all the time. I fell out of love with running while I lived in Manila, and only recently, in Basel, have I rediscovered the joy of lacing up my Asics and journeying out to explore my new little home.

On Saturday, I’d done a short run down to the Rhine (a drab weak-tea color yesterday from the rain), so I figured I’d explore some other area on Sunday. My students had told me about some Roman ruins nearby, so I opened up my phone and did some research. Apparently, the ruins are gated and charge entry, and are unsurprisingly closed due to COVID.

Undeterred, I opened Google Maps and typed in “castle”. Three options appeared. I had to pause there to let that sink in. I live in a place where there is no shortage of castles to run to. Fabulous. I opted for Pfeffingen Castle, because it seemed closest at approximately 10 kilometers away. My weather app forecast cloudy skies and a brisk 38 degrees, so I layered on my puffy vest (with two masks in my pocket in case I decided to tram back), bundled up, and headed out the door.

I planned on running up the hill to the water tower and following the back roads until I got to Aesch, but my map suggested I take the more industrial route that we usually bike to work. This seemed rather charmless, but it was flat, and I imagined the final push to the castle would be uphill.

Off I went, running along an empty road, breathing cool air. It was okay, until my map directed me off the pavement and up along a gravel road that weaved more through trees and fields and eventually, suburbia. It was then that I fell into my running groove and started to really embrace my surroundings.

Here, I run to a soundtrack of church bells and birdsong, the occasional rush of a passing car or e-bike. The chilly air has made my eyes bleary, but when I can see, it is my breath that is visible in the air ahead, long streams of vapor that prove my existence. I run past dogs on long leashes, at least one white fluffy dog that looks like a pillow or a cloud on little legs. A woman and two children pause to watch rainwater (it poured all day Saturday) rushing in a little stream along the walking path. One child is packed into its little marshmallow winter onesie and can barely bend down to look at the stream.

There are a handful of people I’ve met here who claim that Basel is boring. So whenever I have moments like these, where I feel like I’ve got to pinch myself to wake up from this dream, I wonder when the magic will wear off.

This is not to say that life is perfect. School is tough. I teach with a mask on that sits so tightly on my face that it hurts my nose and looks more like a feedbag than anything else. When I think of the 8+ hours I will spend at work, hunting for spaces free of 3 or more people, peeling my mask off to catch a breath out an open classroom window, my stomach drops.

When I’m running, breathing freely, the loud heel-strike of my sneakers on wet pavement the loudest sound I hear, I feel better.

And this is only my first year in Basel. COVID has canceled all of the major events that apparently bring Basel to life: the world-famous Art Basel festival, Herbsmesse, the Christmas markets, and, in a few weeks, the vibrant and festive Fasnacht, for which we receive a week off of school. But none of these things are on this year, which makes me even more excited. It’s like I’m getting to know a raw, true, stripped-down version of Basel without all the sequins and flair.

I run through the woods until the path takes me along the tram tracks that run along the farm, then into Aesch, which is decorated with colorful flags and grotesque masked figures mounted on storefront windows and on balconies. I wonder what Fasnacht will look like this year. (Yes, it is canceled, but is there some sort of decorating component?)

As I suspected, the last push to the castle is up a long street that seems to continue endlessly uphill. The higher up I run, the mistier it is. I can’t see the castle until I’m basically there, but it’s one of those things that wakes you up when you’re feeling defeated. There I am, panting pathetically as I crest this hill alongside children and dog-walkers, and then there’s this ancient, crumbling castle enshrouded in mist. Cue burst of energy.

Just wow. Not only could I ogle the castle from the road, but paths and metal steps invited me to explore the ruins. All of the signs were in German, but I gathered from one of them that the castle was as old as 1499. Wandering through the ruins, watching parapets and stone towers slowly materialize out of the mist, I felt like I was traveling back in time.

Turning a corner, I found myself in an area with two grills and benches, one area occupied by five or six people with barbecue and backpacks. Let that sink in. You can come and grill and have a picnic in a castle.

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