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Three countries, all in a day's trip

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Breakfast: muesli and luscious berry yogurt from little brown glass jars overlooking the Rhine River in Basel, Switzerland.

Lunch: choucroute royale, hearty enough to fuel a vineyard worker for a day of pruning in this famous Alsatian wine region in Colmar, France.

Dinner: pumpkin soup and sauteed pork with peach slices in a 450-year-old farmhouse in Germany's Black Forest.

Three meals, three countries, a single day. With several stops for sightseeing, it took us 12 hours, but the pace was reasonable and allowed us to sample the cultural differences between the three countries.

It's possible to do this tri-country quickie because a tiny bit of Switzerland projects into the junction of France and Germany, a kind of three-corners international border.

We started the day with an abbreviated look at Basel. In the medieval quarter, the Gothic town hall built in 1504 sports a roof of colorful tiles and towers over a market. Turn almost any corner, and you will find a splashing fountain, some centuries old.

Sturdy green streetcars rumble through any part of Basel and will take you anywhere you want to go, including to its 30 museums.

At one of the bridges across the Rhine, a statue of Helvetia, the Roman name for Switzerland, sits with her chin cupped in her hand, looking in the direction of France.

The drive from Basel to Colmar, France, passed along the Rhine River Valley and the beginning of France's famed Routes des Vins d'Alsace. The shadowy ridges of the Vosges marked the left horizon.

Colmar rates high on the picturesque scale, with medieval half-timbered buildings in peppermint pink and sea-foam blue.

Colmar is so charming it makes one wonder why the town isn't a major destination in itself. It does attract many visitors for its international music festival in the summer, but in general, it plays second fiddle to Strasbourg, its famous neighbor.

Canals lace Colmar, and there is a "Little Venice" quarter and a fisherman's quay. A statue in front of the old customs house pays tribute to Lazarus von Schwendi, who brought the first Tokay grapes from Turkey to Colmar.

We sampled a Riesling at lunch at Caveau St. Pierre, in a room with a dark, beamed ceiling and heavy, wooden tables that must have supported thousands of platters of choucroute royale. This cabbage dish had slabs of pork, bacon and sausage.

Then it was on to Germany. In a driving rainstorm, we made our way to Breisach, to see the altar screen at St. Stephen Cathedral. This masterpiece by a 16th-century stonemason soars to the top of the Gothic building with filigree as delicate as lace.

The rain let up on our drive to Staufen. It turns out that Dr. Faustus was not an invention of Goethe; he really existed. In the early 1500s, he lived at Gasthaus zum Lowen (Lion Inn) in Staufen, where he was trying to convert lead to gold for the local royal family. When his alchemist's gifts weren't enough, legend has it he struck up his bargain with the devil: his soul for the magic formula.The innkeeper recited the whole story while we ate Black Forest cherry cake.

The sweet introduced the Black Forest, a 45-mile long swathe of hills covered with large patches of deep forest. Cows grazed on very green pasture between patches of trees and tiny hamlets of farmhouses with attached barns huddled in valleys. A monastery with an onion-domed church cozied up to another hill.

Our destination was Hirtenbrunnen, a restaurant set in a 450-year-old farmhouse with a thatched roof about 2 feet thick. In the old days, there were no chimneys. The smoke simply curled into the attic, where hams and bacon were hung to smoke.

Sago Muller, the chef-owner, took us on a quick tour before seating us with a few other guests in the low-ceilinged dining room.

For the traditional setting, the food was remarkably contemporary; the pumpkin soup and salad with mushrooms, pickled pumpkin and lamb's lettuce could have been found in a trendy Berkeley restaurant. We sipped the fizzy spring water that bubbled out of a nearby hillside and the local wine.

The evening ended when one of the other guests got up to play a guitar and another table started to sing the lieder this country loves so much. And then it was time to wind our way back out of the hills and head back for Basel.

When you go...

Getting there: Air service to Basel is available from the Basel-Mulhouse Airport, which is nearby in France. Basel also has excellent train connections.

Getting around: The Europass, good for train travel in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, may be used for a specific number of days of travel within a two-month period. The same applies for car rental. Europass begins at $253 when two people are traveling together, and the Europass Drive program begins at $259.

Staying there: Basel has dozens of hotels, from modest inns to four-star luxury lodgings. At the four-star Merian am Rhein, Rheingasse 2, Basel 4005, Switzerland, rates begin at $156 when part of a Eurail package.

Information: Rail Europe, 800-438-7245; France on Call, 900-990-0040 (95 cents per minute); German National Tourist Office, 310-575-9799; Switzerland Tourism, 415-362-2260.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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