Open-water swimming is something you either get or you don’t.
The Don’ts question the sanity of jumping into a cold – no, let’s say just ‘bracing’ – body of water. The Dos relish the freedom, the connection to nature, the awakening of the senses and the ability to front crawl without a plaster floating past at eye level.
If you’re in the latter group, welcome to Zürich. No other major town in Europe embraces the concept of lake and river swimming quite like here. In Switzerland’s largest city there are around 40 swimming spots to splash about in; with lake, river and outdoor pools dotted just about everywhere.
This being Switzerland, the badis (as the outdoor pools are known) are clean, elegant, efficiently run and more akin to a members’ club than a swimming pool. Some of them are for women only, some are just for men, and in the evening several turn into bars with live music and cocktails.
Some people don’t come to swim at all. The morning yoga class at Utoquai badi, on the shore of Lake Zürich itself, starts at precisely 7:05am. Here on a sunny summer day, with the snow-clad Alps still clearly visible in the middle distance despite the season, people gather to show off their expensive, crisply pressed trunks, to tan on the pontoons moored several metres from the shore, to relax with an Aperol spritz while they soak up the day’s news from the pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to gossip with friends over a salmon salad and, for sure, to flirt with the attractive lifeguards of both sexes. The long building juts out over the lake, as it has since 1890. It is made up of various wooden decks divided into single- and mixed-sex areas, with a well-ordered, calm Swiss hum.
There has been outdoor swimming in Zürich since the days of the Romans, when the settlement was known as Turicum. In the 19th century, the city council built public baths for residents, calculating that it would be cheaper than equipping individual homes with running water. A necessity became a trend and by the 1930s architects competed to build bathing pavilions that attracted both the working man and the well-to-do.
As well as by the lakeside, several badis were built in the heart of downtown on the Limmat River, just a short stroll from the main train station and the 17th century city hall. In high summer those located at the Upper and Lower Letten sections of the river see plenty of hip, tattooed, six-packed men and women jumping in from bridges to be carried downstream by the swift current, slamming into the sluice gates at the end, while their friends play volleyball, drink in the cafés, sunbathe on the banks and crank out Bieber and Gaga on their bluetooth speakers.
When I tried this, though, I careened into the gates and the force of the water almost ripped my swimming trunks off. It was only after observing the locals approaching feet-first that I realised there’s definitely a technique here. Some people even bodysurf using the sluice gates, riding the force of the flow being pushed through the narrow channel at the end. Not something for less confident swimmers, but as with all the badis, lifeguards keep a watchful eye.
For something more peaceful, hop on tram number 7 from the centre of town and in quarter of an hour you’ve trundled out to neat, well-scrubbed suburbs. After a further 10 minutes on foot by the edge of the lake you’ve reached the Seebad Wollishofen, where the architecture is as much of a lure as the facilities. Once you’ve paid your eight Swiss francs (HK$65), you enter a spotless world of well-manicured lawns, pristine wooden lockers and benches, and a graceful concrete pavilion designed in 1939 by Hermann Herter that looks like a blueprint for the USS Enterprise on Star Trek.
I walked down the steps to the lake and enjoyed the delicious crispness of the water. Not chilly, but fresh. Not many other people were around – probably beavering away in Zürich’s bank vaults – and I cut through the water at a leisurely pace enjoying the liberty that comes with not being in a lane, not being kicked by the swimmer in front and not having to think. I swam away from the shore, looking up at the city in the distance.
Towards the shoreline a diving pontoon called out to the child in me. There were three levels of boards. I chose the lowest one, which still seemed high when I teetered on the edge. With a couple of bounces I launched myself into the great unknown, landing with a splash in the water. Again, again!
On my way back into town I stopped at Seebad Enge, also on the lakeshore, for lunch. It has the feel of a club that, by happy coincidence, just happens to offer swimming facilities. Business people often come for a dip at lunchtime to break up a day of meetings. A steady stream of men and women arrived in formal work attire only to emerge from behind cabana doors minutes later wearing just swimming costumes and a smile, immediately unburdened by the weight of bonds and share prices.
Perhaps the biggest surprise offered by the badis comes as dusk falls over Zürich. By day the Frauenbadi admits only women. But in the evening it transforms into the Barfussbar, or ‘Bare Foot Bar’: men are allowed in, but not their shoes. It’s a gorgeous structure and location with awesome views of the lake and town. On the balmy evening when I visited it was busy but not packed, with a range of ages mingling, laughing and dabbing their feet in the water while sipping cocktails and listening to an acoustic set from local musician Hong, singing his latest hit, Sweet Killer. On other evenings here there are literary readings, concerts and improv theatre performances.
A 15-minute walk away, the men-only Schanzengraben badi – the oldest of Zürich’s badis – also mixes sexes once the sun goes down, transforming into the Rimini Bar. If anything it’s an even hipper, more intimate, sexier location than the Frauenbadi. A young, snappily dressed crowd, who clearly go to the gym and are chiselled of jaw and pert of bottom, were engaged in after-work flirting over beers and good Swiss wines, relaxing on cushions or lolling by open-air pools illuminated red and green by the lights. Many chatted in English, highlighting the international character of Zürich, with one couple deep in conversation about interest rates: finance is everyone’s second language. On Monday evenings there is a secondhand goods market. (At the Lower Letten baths you might catch night-time open-air movie screenings as part of its Filmfluss series, which features foreign and Swiss indie productions.)
The city was shutting down for the night as I wandered back to my hotel on Marktgasse across the peaceful Limmat, lost in my thoughts under a full moon. As I meandered along the lanes near the riverbank I made my plans for the morning, which would definitely start with a dip in the lake – a thoroughly refreshing way to start any day in Zürich, whether you’re facing a day of analysing stock portfolios or cafés and museums.