The Reluctant Repat is back! After a month in Europe with my family, I feel re-energized by visits with old friends and enriched by new experiences. As I adjust to the sauna that is Swarthmore in late-July, I want to capture and share the single most refreshing highlight of our trip: Swimming in the Rhein [Rhine] in Basel, Switzerland.
After a long drive through the Alps, we arrived at the Basel youth hostel on a hot summer afternoon and met an old friend with a good idea. Packing our towels, shoes and a change of clothing into watertight bags known as Wickelfisch, we waded into the river near the Museum Tinguely and let the current carry us about 3 kilometers downstream to the Dreirosenbrücke.
A sign at our point of entry put the water temperature at 20˚C (about 68˚F), and I’d estimate the swim lasted about 30 to 45 minutes, carrying us past the city’s
main historic, commercial and residential districts. We knew the scenery well from many visits to Basel during our time in Germany, but this was a very different perspective – a duck’s eye view!
To get out of the river, we swam to the side and made use of a set of broad stone steps leading up to street level. We emerged refreshed and elated. It was awesome!
The mighty Rhine flows out of the Alps through or between 5 nations and countless cities and towns, but I believe no one has quite as much fun on and in the river as the people of Basel. On warm summer days, they gather along the riverside, and dozens of heads can be seen bobbing in the current. That image is surprising to many Europeans, who think of Basel in terms of the chemical plants and rail yards they see from the highway as they drive by on their way to somewhere else. The Rhine is a working river, and Basel is indeed an industrial center. However, by protecting watersheds upstream, the Swiss have ensured that the river is clean. And the city center – on both sides of the river – is compact, accessible, polyglot and utterly charming.
Rheinschwimmen [swimming in the Rhine] is potentially dangerous and not recommended for inexperienced swimmers. The current is so strong that a close encounter with a buoy, boat or bridge abutment can be fatal. A few simple measures are intended to minimize casualties: Jumping into the river from bridges is illegal, as is swimming with water wings or other flotation devices. (An exception is made for the Wickelfisch.) Blue buoys positioned at regular intervals help guide swimmers away from the central channel used by commercial ships. Nevertheless, on days when the current is especially swift, the local authorities warn swimmers to stay out of the river.