As I stand gazing up at the green domes of Bern’s parliament building, I can’t help feeling it’s a little incongruous to be doing so semi-naked. A swimsuit isn’t generally the attire required for a city break, but in the Swiss capital in summer, it’s most definitely de rigueur. Not for sightseeing, I must add, but for doing as the locals do and plunging into the Aare; the fast-flowing, beautifully clean river that loops around Bern’s historic, UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed buildings.
Today, it’s certainly inviting: it’s an opaque, jade colour, thanks to the melted glacier water flowing down from the surrounding mountains, as Beat Wüthrich, head of the city’s outdoor swimming pools, explains: “Earlier in the summer, the water was completely clear, you could see every stone,” he says, as we walk along the river. We’re joined by his colleague, Veronique, and the three of us pad along the path in bare feet as dozens of swimmers float idly by on the current. “In Bern, the river is so beautiful, so when summer arrives and the temperature rises, everyone just wants to jump in,” says Veronique. “In high season, there can be up to 12,000 people in the river on a sunny day.”
Swimmers tend to take one of two routes (separated by a potentially lethal weir): either the stretch just upstream from the Lorraine swimming pool, or the one I’m about to try, which is upstream from the Freibad Marzili, a complex of free-of-charge, public swimming pools, with showers, changing cabins and lockers. Here, a low-level bridge provides a platform for the more daring, and the more cautious (like me) ease in from the many sets of steps along the river. According to Veronique, the walk up the river is as much a part of the experience as the swim. “People walk up here chatting to others, it’s a really sociable thing. Then they float down the river, then walk up to do it again.” The wet footprints on the path suggest as much, and after a gentle 15-minute stroll, it’s time to take the plunge.
When we get to our launchpad at Schönausteg, Veronique steps into a small pool next to some showers. I follow, gasping with the shock of the cold water. As I splash water on my arms, I can’t help fearing hypothermia, despite it being August and 27C. “It’s ok, this pool is 13C. The river is 18C,” laughs Veronique. Beat walks down the steps into the river first and we follow, and the three of us stand there knee-deep, with the water rushing over our legs. “One, two, three, go!” he yells and we’re in.
I swim quickly away from the shore and into the centre of the river. The current is strong, so strong, in fact, I barely need to swim, so I just tread water and enjoy the ride. It’s a ride that beats any flume or waterpark. Around me there are signs of suburbia: tennis courts, a football pitch, houses hidden among the trees; a few fellow swimmers cling to the yellow dry-bags containing all their clothes. I lie back in the river looking at the cloudless sky, letting the current carry me.
Before long, we pass under a huge road bridge and the parliament building comes into view, and then the Freibad Marzili. Beat tells me to swim toward the side to come into land. He gets out first and I grab his outstretched hand to stop myself floating on past and he pulls me in. I crawl up the steps, heart pounding from both the adrenalin and the effort of swimming across the current. “That was brilliant!” I say. “Can we go again?”