It’s something Londoners, Parisians and Romans can only dream of: finishing work on a hot summer day and jumping in the river. But this isn’t the Thames, Seine or Tiber. This is the Aare, a crystal-clear river of glacial meltwater coming straight from the Alps. And it’s a Bern institution to go swimming in it. So hundreds do; once the thermometer starts to hit thirty, as it did today, then it’s down to the riverside for most Bernese. Including me. Today was my first urban swim of this year. Summer is truly here.
Bern sits on a big u-bend in the river, but high up on a cliff. From behind the parliament building, you can see both the Alps in the distance and the Aare down below the city. The most popular place to jump in is Marzili, an open space at the foot of parliament hill, with open-air pools and sunbathing lawns. This is one of the oldest public baths in Switzerland and one of the few that is free. If you live in Zurich or Luzern, you have to pay to access the lakeside baths; in Bern it’s free. And very popular. Towels cover almost every blade of grass and clothes sit in neat little piles while their owners all go off for a cooling swim. Cooling being the operative word.
It’s refreshing to say the least, as the water temperature usually hovers around the 20 degree mark. In the hottest summer ever (2003), it managed a balmy 23. It was like swimming in a warm bath, comparatively speaking. But it’s not just cooling off that’s the attraction; it’s going with the flow. The river is rather fast, so that you don’t even have to swim, just float and be carried along. A liquid travelator. To make the most of riding the river, most people walk upstream along the riverside path for at least fifteen minutes or so, then get in and float back down to Marzili.
Getting in is the easy part, once you get over the initial shock, with steps and rails to help the nervous. Getting out is trickier. You have to swim across the flow to head for the bank, grab a railing, swing round and up onto the nearest step. A bit of practice and it’s a doddle. Just be sure to take notice of the ‘Last exit’ signs. It may seem weird but they’re totally necessary. Round the bend, there’s a weir and you really don’t want to be swimming into that. Instead you can get out, walk across the spit of land, and jump back in, carrying on past the cathedral and under the city bridges. A sightseeing tour like no other. And this fast-moving swimming pool has even been on the BBC News. So if you’re coming to Bern this summer, remember to pack your swimming things.