Vogel Gryff in Kleinbasel

Basel is one city divided in two by the Rhein river. The two parts are known as Grossbasel and Kleinbasel.

Screenshot 2016-04-16 at 11.32.29 AM

Kleinbasel is the smaller portion of Basel inside the curve of the Rhein, in the upper-right portion of this picture.

In mid- to late-January every year, Kleinbasel has its big celebration called Vogel Gryff. The exact date varies from year-to-year and is on a rotation:

  • January 13 celebrates the Lion
  • January 20 celebrates the Wild Man
  • January 27 celebrates the Griffin

The Lion, Wild Man, and Griffin each symbolize three long-standing Kleinbasel societies. Once upon a time, each society had its own celebration each year, but in 1841 the societies all moved into one headquarters and combined the ceremony with a rotating date to continue to acknowledge their traditional celebration dates.

There’s a lot of ceremonial pomp and circumstance for this celebration. It starts with the Wild Man dancing on a boat floating down the Rhein, accompanied by two drummers, two flag bearers, and two cannoneers repeatedly firing gun salutes. The Wild Man dances on the boat, always being sure to keep his back to Grossbasel.

When the boat docks, the Wild Man is joined by the Lion and the Griffin and the entire group marches to the middle of the Mittlere Brücke (middle bridge) where they take turns dancing, always with their backs to Grossbasel.

Afterwards, they march back into Kleinbasel where they will have a festive lunch and continue marching and dancing through the streets.

G and I attempted to go Vogel Gryff last year. We had been in Basel for only a few days and Andy texted me to say his coworkers said there was a boat race of some kind happening on the Rhein, but none of his coworkers knew many details because it always took place during the week and they couldn’t go. I didn’t know the name of the event and Googling “Rhein boat race” and many variations did yield some results, but nothing about a race in January (for now obvious reasons).

It was raining (of course), so I bundled G and myself up, stuck her in the Ergo, and tried to walk to the river.

I failed so hard.

I still had my Verizon phone at that point, so when I left the apartment, I was data-free and clueless. We had been to the river when we visited in October 2014, but had walked from our hotel and I had no idea how to get anywhere by myself. We wandered around for a while, popping into a couple of shops when I was cold and tired of getting rained on.

We eventually turned tail and went home, never having found the river. It was just as well, I now know, as we were out walking after the boat portion and the dancing on the Mittlere Brücke were both over, so I wouldn’t have had anything to see if I had ever made it to the bridge.

This year, I knew several ways to get to the Rhein and knew that it was called Vogel Gryff. I was prepared.

However, we didn’t get out of the house early enough to watch the Wild Man’s journey on the Rhein. We got to Marktplatz and grabbed hot dogs for lunch and then got to the Mittlere Brücke a little before noon, which is when the dancing is supposed to start. Getting there so late was a mistake; we couldn’t see much at all.

The green, blue, and red flags symbolize the three societies. You can see the Wild Man dancing in the middle of the picture; the Griffin is standing on the left side.


The Vogel Gryff flags only extend to the middle of the bridge on the Kleinbasel side. On the Grossbasel side, the flags bear Basel’s bishop’s staff.

Maybe next year I’ll make it to the Rhein early enough to see the Wild Man on the river!


5 thoughts on “Vogel Gryff in Kleinbasel

  1. Wow, I have never heard of that Basel tradition. I know about Fasnacht, I know about Herbstmesse, and i know that the recently opened Dunkin Donuts store is located in Kleinbasel.

    I hope you’ll make it next year and tell us all about it!

    PS: There are a number of Mrs Merian & Mrs Sarasin jokes, two rival Basel families. Wanna hear one?

  2. Allright. It’s not very pc though:
    Mrs Sarasin bumps into Mrs Merian who is pushing a stroller.
    “Oh, Mrs Merian, I didn’t know you’ve had a baby! Congratulations! May I have a look at the little one?” Mrs Sarasin asks.
    “Sure, go ahead”, Mrs Merian lifts the scarf she had put over the stroller’s top so the baby would sleep better.
    Mrs Sarasin gasps.
    “Oh, but Mrs Merian! Your baby… is… BLACK!!?!!”
    “Yeah, well, you know, I wanted to make absolutely sure that it wouldn’t be a Zurich baby!!”

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