Landlocked Beach Town

As I was writing this in mid-September, Basel was experiencing the last glorious days of a sunny, warm Indian summer, with temperatures in the high 20s (80s F) and copious golden light. If various viruses and airlines cooperate, by the time this is posted my family will be spending some of our Herbstferien, or autumn break, one of the two-week school holidays that the Swiss educational system distributes every six weeks throughout the term, catching a few last rays on the beaches and by the pool in the Algarve, in deep southern Portugal.* It seemed an appropriate time to say goodbye to the beaches we have at home.

The beach nearest to Basel, which is to say the nearest seaside, is close to five hundred kilometers away, on the Italian Riviera. We’re in a landlocked country, and unlike Bern, Lucerne, Zurich, Geneva, Interlaken, Neuchâtel, or Locarno, among others, we don’t even have any big lakes in town or in the immediate neighborhood.

What we do have, however, is the Rhine, and Baslers are deeply dedicated to taking advantage of it in the summer months, which turn parts of our little inland city into something resembling a resort. Among Basel’s most beloved summer traditions is the storied Rheinschwimm, “Rhine Swim.” There are traditional days every year when whole workplaces, including my wife’s 7000-plus-employee multinational HQ, encourage their people to Rheinschwimm home from work after a long day of crunching numbers or manufacturing antibodies.

But the term Rheinschwimm is almost a misnomer, since for most participants it’s less a swim than a float, thanks in part to Basel’s ubiquitous and locally invented Wickelfisch.

A Wickelfisch (literally something like “wrap fish”) is a fish-shaped waterproof bag with a strap on it, into which RheinschwimmerInnen bundle their street clothes, shoes, wallets, purses, briefcases, cell phones, laptops, sunglasses, and whatever other stuff they might have on their persons in their everyday, dry lives, rolling up the tail end and sealing it with a thick strip of Velcro and plastic buckles, trapping a quantity of air in the bag alongside their belongings. The Wickelfisch thus becomes both a dry bag and something of a flotation aid (although the warning labels on the Fische explicitly tell you not to depend on them as such, and mine lost a noticeable amount of air over the course of my first Rheinschwimm, so it’s probably good advice).

My Wickelfisch at front, Jessica’s at rear. I had the choice of red or red with spots. I got mine at a pharmacy, but you can also find them at supermarkets, the train station, kiosks, riverside pop-up stands, bars, ice cream stands, and restaurants, among other outlets. Jessica got hers free from work; you can tell by the subtle double helix decorations.

Swimmers paddle out just a little ways from the riverbank, hold on to their fish, and get swept downstream by the Rhine’s very strong current. Some people wade in with their Wickelfische already strapped on, and others toss the fish in first before jumping off a bank or a landing to swim and catch up with it. While a big, beautiful waterway like the Rhine obviously also attracts your usual gung-ho hardcore swimmers ostentatiously slicing against the current like athletic seals, for most Rheinschwimmers, the only serious swimming involved is just for launching and landing, and maybe steering around the odd moored boat.

Some obvious questions about Rhine Swimming:

Is it clean? Yes, it’s clean enough. Although historically the Rhine around Basel was polluted with a lot of industrial effluvia, an effort has been made in recent decades to clean things up. It’s not drinking water (the communities along the Rhine closer to its North Sea outlet in the Netherlands that do depend upon the Rhine for drinking water have to filter it first). But it doesn’t smell and generally looks clear.

Is it safe? (Isn’t it a major international shipping channel?) The answer to these questions is yes, it’s safe enough if you’re careful, and yes, as the second longest river in Europe and a primary transit artery through one landlocked and one double-landlocked country (Liechtenstein), it’s an important channel for freight, some passenger transport, and those river cruises you always see advertised on PBS, if you’re American. Basel officially designates specific, clearly mapped parts of the river as swimmable, marking the shipping lanes and particularly dangerous bridge pylons that should be avoided as off-limits. And virtually all Rhineswimmers adhere to these guidelines, sticking close to the banks on a couple of popular stretches.

Can you dive off the bridges? NO, and some of the bridges are clearly labeled to remind you of that. People still do it sometimes (I have friends who live on the riverside who have seen it done, and you can find clips on YouTube), but it is officially verboten. I have often wondered whether violators get busted by boats, or whether the authorities nab them when they come ashore, but I wish the rule were enforced by swimming cops who could write you a waterproof ticket on the spot.

Printed on the sidewalk on Mittlere Bruecke, the closest bridge to my house.

You can, however, jump off of unoccupied boat landings, as my kids have recently learned to love.

Coming ashore from a Rheinschwimm is theoretically possible almost anywhere, but most people get in and out near one of the city’s four main bridges, which serve as sort of mile markers for the length of various trips downstream (“We went from Schwarzwaldbrücke all the way down to Dreirosenbrücke, it was great!”) The riverbanks adjacent to all of the central bridges are built up with boat landings with staircases, sun-dappled Rhineside promenades, benches, fountains of pure drinking water shaped like Basel’s emblematic Basilisk (known to my kids as the Chicken Dragon, not without reason), and in the summer months, Buvettes.

All summer and early autumn long, all along the banks of the Rhine, but especially on the sunnier, Kleinbasel side, these small refreshment stands serve up snacks, light meals (most often overpriced, not necessarily very good sandwiches, but in a setting pretty enough to make up for it), ice cream, Aperol Spritzes, Hugos (a prosecco and elderflower syrup cocktail), espresso, beer, craft lemonade and more. A couple of kilometers of shore thus become, for the summer months, a massive sidewalk café or beer garden. Riverside full-service restaurants on the Kleinbasel side of the river, some with names like Glaibasler RHYwyera (Baseldeutsch for ‘Kleinbasler Riviera’, with the first syllable in Riviera rendered as Rhy, the Swiss German name for the Rhine; I suppose that means that the restaurant’s name actually translates literally to “Kleinbasler RHINEviera,” but who can read that?) open their terraces and spread out onto the sidewalk. A Mediterranean restaurant on the river walk called Pulpo offers high-end takeout gelato, and its seasonal sidewalk table zone is demarcated by a chalkboard that reads No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem. All along the RHINEviera (nope, still can’t read it), and all over the city during the warm months you meet people on the sidewalks, squares, and trams in flip-flops, bikinis, and towels, who might have been negotiating high-stakes arbitrage, selling paintings, or designing clinical trials a few hours before but have since stashed their business suits in the Wickelfische dangling by their sides.

The tourism authority loves the idea of Kleinbasel as the Basel Riviera, but it’s unclear to me whether the nomenclature enjoys much popular support. Branding aside, though, the Kleinbasel side of the river certainly functions like a big Riviera-style lido in any case. And the Rhine is not Basel’s only waterway to be enjoyed when it’s hot out; two much smaller, shallower, but still impressively cold (particularly early in the Alpine snowmelt season) and rapid Rhine tributaries also pass through the city and its suburbs.

While these streams, the Birs and the Wiese, are mostly too shallow for adults to really swim in, children float down them in inner tubes or on rafts at an incredible clip, sometimes bouncing over rocks like stuntmen, and splashing and wading are refreshing for humans and dogs of all ages.

The Wiese and the Birs in greater Basel mostly flow through parkland rather than the Rhine’s urban development, and their grassy or wooded banks are ferociously popular picnic areas for many months of the year, with families and friends gathering to drink and snack and grill. The Swiss are serious contenders for the most enthusiastic barbecuers in the world—you hear and smell the sizzling from inner-city balconies all the time starting in about mid-April, and every supermarket sells little disposable aluminum charcoal grills for those times when you don’t feel like bundling your Hibachi into a duffel bag, although serious grillers who presumably don’t have to take the bus eschew these flimsy, unsustainable substitutes and haul the real thing around. One popular seasonal Birs-side bar and restaurant has a kiddie pool in its backyard, emphasizing its beachy atmosphere, and where both the Birs and the Wiese flow into the Rhine are large parks, a playground, and several fine beaches.

Our son Simon on a summer camp excursion to where the Birs meets the Rhine. He officially hated it, but it still took me an hour to get him away from the riverside to head home. This rocky bathing area and the sandier beach behind Simon are both adjacent to a large, grassy park known as the Birskoepfli that is crowded with people grilling and chilling for at least a quarter of the year.

I have never been a big summer guy, but watching this small landlocked city turn into a beach town for a few months a year has been among my favorite Basel experiences so far, and as the autumn descends upon us after a few last weeks of sun I know I will miss it. Until next season.

* In the end, we had to do some Coronavirus dodging between the time we first scheduled our trip and the time this post was published; Portugal was added to the Swiss quarantine list (meaning that had we gone, we would have to shelter in place at home for ten days before re-entering school, work, or society). So at the last minute we re-booked our Algarve holiday for Sicily. So I hope it is safe to assume that we are in Taormina when you read this, but if we had to scramble again, I will let you know. Scheduling blog posts is a bit like miniature time travel.

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