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On a visit to Basel, I saw its residents swimming in the Rhine. I just had to try it myself

By James Woodall   June 2011

The annual “Basler Rheinschwimmen,” when Basel’s inhabitants take to the Rhine

On a summer’s evening in Basel, I was walking along the left bank of the Rhine when I saw heads bobbing in the water. It was a Wednesday, around 9pm. The water was lit by cafés and bars, and by lamps on a festival stage moored a short way from the right bank.

These floating Swiss were relishing the pleasures of what I later discovered is known as the “free-water season.” Once the Rhine has been warmed by the sun, Baselers take to the water at any time of day or night. Using a canvas strap, they hang around their necks a Wickelfisch, a coloured plastic bag containing clothes, watches, shoes and a towel. Then they either swim or float for up to a mile and a quarter under the three bridges that unite the two banks of the city, Grossbasel and Kleinbasel. Signs dotted along each riverbank indicate where swimmers can and cannot go. Areas marked blue, mainly alongside Kleinbasel, are safe. Red zones—towards the river’s middle—mark danger. Swimming from one side to the other is forbidden.

Since 1980, there’s been a special event, the “Basler Rheinschwimmen,” when it seems as if the entire city descends into the river for the day. There is a small beach upstream where Baselers gather, get changed and wade in. This year’s mass swim takes place on 16th August, but if conditions through the summer are good, you can swim whenever you want.

A Wickelfisch can be bought at the city’s tourist office or youth hostel for 25 Swiss francs. Once you’ve put your clothes in it, it’s essential to make it watertight by rolling the lips seven times over before clipping the bag shut. Wear flip-flops or plastic shoes. And do what everyone else does: swimming alone is not advised. Once you’re in the water, let yourself be carried by the current and don’t try to go under any bridge-arch other than the first two from the right.

Pollution was once a serious problem. Postwar German industrialisation catastrophically depleted the river’s fish stocks. In 1986, an industrial accident near Basel turned the Rhine toxic red. But major efforts to minimise pollution both before the spill and throughout the 1980s led to an unprecedented clean-up of Europe’s busiest waterway.  Today, perch, trout and salmon, among many other fish species, abound. Just over the border in Germany, a monitoring station checks Rhine water every six minutes, 24 hours a day.

Basel, in northwest Switzerland, has more than the Rhine as a draw. A wealthy city, the third most populous in Switzerland after Zurich and Geneva, its chemical and pharmaceutical industries are world-renowned—but so is its culture. If I hadn’t been fixated on the free-water season, I’d have whiled away hours in its Kunstmuseum, housing medieval to modern paintings of a sumptuousness rarely seen outside Berlin, London or New York. In a place whose millennium of history includes some of the most important steps taken in both printing and in the Reformation—Erasmus lived and died here—it’s no surprise that the Kunstmuseum’s collection, begun in 1661, is the oldest held by a municipality anywhere.

Basel has a sweetness and modesty about it. Even the Rhine is nothing like as wide and forbidding as it is in the more port-like German cities of Mannheim and Düsseldorf further downstream. The great Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s spirit extends across the river here: he built kinetic constructions made of wires and pulleys (a museum dedicated to his art lies on the Rhine’s left bank, close to the water). There are four ferries going between the river’s banks, each attached by a Tinguely-like wire and clipped to a rope hung over the water. These boats are powered by the current alone, and ply back and forth throughout the day. An unostentatious twinning of art and science has underpinned the city’s success for centuries.

Standing that night on the riverbank, I decided to return as soon as I could for a swim. I was back within a year, though only for one night. Unfortunately, the morning I’d allocated for my dip dawned cold and grey. I’d bought the bag, I was wearing flip-flops. At 7 o’clock, I was up and peering from my hotel room window at a brooding sky and a swollen, angry-looking river.

For breakfast, I wolfed down muesli and toast, and strong coffee. I felt I might need fortifying for the ordeal ahead. The man at the hotel reception, who’d advised me where to buy my Wickelfisch, had warned me: “You could get hit by a log if the water’s flowing at that speed.” Gingerly, I walked in the cold rain down to the ferry closest to where I was staying, and asked the man operating it whether he thought it was a good idea to swim. Smiling wryly, he said, “Just keep to the bankside.” We crossed the river and he told me I didn’t need to go to the beach and could get in just upstream of the ferry’s pier. There was nothing, as far as I could see, more hazardous than twigs and the odd plastic bottle rushing by. On the river’s far side, the two steeples of Basel’s Münster, a red-stoned masterpiece begun in the 11th century, pointed defiantly at the growly heavens. A sporty walker on the bankside path next to me went by as I eased my torso into the water, Wickelfisch slung round my neck. Grinning widely, perhaps enjoying a vision of unexpected madness on this unsummery morning, she said, “Viel Gluck” (good luck).

Maybe I needed it, but I wasn’t going far. The main surprise once in was the temperature. The opposite of chilly or painful, the water was benign, like a tepid bath. I let myself be swept along by the current, but it wasn’t violent: just springy and deeply pleasant, therapeutic. I hardly had to swim at all in a conventional sense. Five minutes and a few hundred metres later, I slopped out on to the bankside path. Alone, content, I towelled myself down and got dressed.

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