When I first came to live in Bern in January 1987, only two months had passed since the Rhine had been disastrously polluted by a fire in a Sandoz warehouse on the river’s bank in the Swiss city of Basel. The water used to put out the fire had caused huge quantities of dangerous chemicals to flow straight into the Rhine, causing the deaths of innumerable plants and animals. Continuing from Switzerland through Germany and the Netherlands and on to the North Sea, the Rhine became a river of death.
I heard about the spill from Swiss friends and shared their outrage. One thing didn’t make sense to me, though. Of course people focused on the poisons’ effect on everything from fish and eels to microscopic organisms, but they also mention swimming. How long would it take, they asked, before Baslers could swim in the Rhine again?* All I could think was: Why would they want to?
I grew up in a part of the tropics where most fresh water contained a parasitic worm causing a serious disease, schistosomiasis, so as a child I never put a toe into a lake or river. After that I lived on the Charles River in Boston, which in those days no one in their right mind would have swum in. And I knew all about the industrial pollution in the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, Ohio, infamous because an oil slick on its surface caught fire in 1969, creating a burning river. As far as I was concerned, any body of water in, near, or downstream from a city had to be a hazard.
Then I discovered how many people swam in the river a hundred feet from Peter’s and my apartment in Bern–the Aare.
The Aare is born as snow melts in the glaciers of the Bernese Alps. In fact, the Swiss Alps are the birthplace of several great European rivers. The Rhine and the Inn (as in Innsbruck) begin in the canton of Graubünden before flowing into Germany and Austria, the Rhone rises in the canton of Valais before flowing into France. The Aare is shorter than these rivers, only one hundred and eighty miles long, but it’s the longest river that begins and ends in Switzerland. More important for someone who lives in Bern is that one of the Aare’s great loops creates our Old City.
Although the Aare passes through several lakes on its way to Bern, it is still very cold when it arrives in the city. This past summer it barely went above sixty degrees Fahrenheit, although one day in 2018, it did reach seventy-five degrees. But whether the Aare is cold or warm, thousands of people swim in it every year. “Swim” is not the world I’d use to describe gathering your courage, launching yourself into an icy flood, bobbing along at a furious pace, and struggling to reach one of the many flights of stairs leading out of the water before the torrent pours over the Schwellenmätteli weir. But swimming is what devotees of the Aare call it, and some of them do it almost every day all summer long, while a few swim regularly throughout the winter, too—the river never freezes.
I’ve also swum in the Aare. On hot summer days (hot by Bern standards, at least), my husband and I used to cross a footbridge and walk about half a mile upstream from our apartment to a little beach at a campsite across from the Dählhölzli forest, wade into the water, and ride the river about a mile to the second-to-last concrete staircase leading out of the water and up the steep bank. (I wasn’t brave enough to want to attempt the last staircase.) It was more exhilarating for me than any roller coaster: the cold water pulling me along, the warm sun on my face, great trees bending over me on both sides of the bank and, beyond them, the deep blue sky.
But one day, after a scary encounter with a strong eddy and more difficulty than usual making it onto the bank at the end of my swim, I decided to stop. My fear was stronger than the thrill of the race. So now I walk along the Aare, sit by it, and spend a great deal of time on Bern’s bridges gazing down at it in admiration. This does not make me special—the river is an object of awe and affection for all the Bernese I know.
The Aare dies in the canton of Aargau near the fifteen-hundred-person village of Koblenz, a word that means confluence. There, having swallowed the Reuss and the Limmat, two large rivers, the Aare is itself consumed by the Rhine. At the point where the two rivers converge, the Aare is quite a bit bigger than its more famous devourer. Standing there near Koblenz a few years ago on the bank of my river as it disappeared, I remember thinking, “This is the place where the Rhine should become the Aare!”
Would Wagner have written an opera called The Aare Gold and populated the river with Aare Maidens? Well, why not?
*By the summer of 1987, nine months after the chemical disaster in Basel, the city’s residents were swimming in the Rhine again. They still are.
- Swimming in the Aare in the shadow of the Federal Palace. Photo by Bernhard Eichenberger, Boll, Switzerland.
- The glacier where the Aare begins. Robiand, CC BY 3.0, <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- The Aare loops around Bern’s Altstadt. Reaast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Flowing through Bern’s Old City and under the medieval Untertor Bridge: Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons