In search of Aare swimming in Bern

Every May, most of Bern’s outdoor baths fill up their pools, officially kicking off the swimming season. Countless denizens of Bern prefer swimming in the refreshing waters of the Aare at the Marzili and the Lorraine, however. Here’s a look at the history of this tradition – which both sparks joy and entails certain dangers.

Depiction of three boys at the Marzili open-air bath. They are simultaneously jumping off two diving boards at the edge of the bath in a tributary of the Aare River. Other boys and an older man look on with interest.
A tributary of the Aare at Marzili – the ideal spot for taking a dip! (Source: Walter Neeser, 30.06.1931, Burgerbibliothek Bern)

For centuries people have enjoyed swimming in Swiss rivers such as the Aare or the Rhine. In the city of Bern, male adolescents were swimming in a tributary of the Aare that flows through today’s Marzili open-air bath at least as early as 1721. Here the current was weaker than in the open river. The upper, shallower section was called “Bubenseeli” (Boys’ Lake) and the lower, deeper section was called “Studentenseeli” (Students’ Lake). Unfortunately there are no records showing any female swimmers from this time. Despite the names, people from all walks of life indulged in swimming and bathing in the river.

The literature shows that at the end of the 18th century, the Aare between Elfenau and Engehalbinsel was packed with people on nice summer days, where swimmers of both sexes frolicked – unfortunately also at dangerous spots. Mixed-sex meetings were also taking place below the city at Längmuur in the evenings, much to the annoyance of morally upright local residents. Offense was also taken at people revealing themselves when changing in and out of their swimsuits along the Aare. 

“Aare culture” becomes political

These were among the reasons why the authorities in Bern launched measures against moral decay and to promote swimmer safety during this period. At first, swimming in the Aare was only permitted at three locations in the city (Marzili, Dalmazi and Enge). Later on, swimming at Matte and Längmuur was expressly forbidden.

The population’s need for a public river swimming spot gradually grew. There were already warm baths and an open-air bath with a cool pool from 1822 on, but they charged admission.

Courses for safe Aare swimming

The location at Marzili was always the first choice for the establishment of a public swimming area, but the owners of the two plots on the small island situated between the two tributaries fought hard for decades against using the area as a swimming spot. The government in Bern was forced to engage in a legal battle to fight for the traditional swimming rights of its citizens. By 1900, the city was finally able to acquire both of the plots and an additional piece of land along the west course of the Aare.

Here, the Marzili open-air pool as it is known today gradually came into existence. Until 1968, it was possible to swim in the open river or the tributary at this spot, but then the canal was mostly filled and today’s pool set up in its place. Girls and boys alike learned to swim at the Marzili and the Lorraine, which was built in 1892. This prepared them for swimming in the open Aare – still popular at the time. But because there were so many fatal accidents in rivers and lakes, first-aid responders founded the “Schweizerische Lebensrettungs-Gesellschaft SLRG” (Swiss Lifeguarding Society) in 1933 to advocate for safety in open waters.

“Aare culture” then and now: striking similarities

Comparing the “Aare culture” of the past with that of the present reveals a great deal of continuity. People have loved swimming in and lounging along the Aare for centuries; they enjoy taking a refreshing dip as well as taking a break from everyday routine, either in a social setting or in connection with nature.

However, for as long as people have been swimming in open waters like the Aare, they have also been putting themselves at risk – a risk that can be greatly minimised with sensible behaviour, however.

Aare swimming in Bern is on the official list of Switzerland’s living traditions. The Federal Office of Culture has put together documentation and a bibliography on the topic. The website offers an overview.

Bibliography and sources

Last modification 16.05.2024

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