On a visit to Basel, I saw its residents swimming in the Rhine. I just had to try it myselfby James Woodall / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…