I am standing outside the entrance to the Seebad Utoquai, a Zurich heritage bathhouse. The wooden pavilion for sunning and swimming rests on stilts over Lake Zurich and is almost in the heart of the city. It has graced this spot along a popular lakeside promenade for more than 125 years, and is steps away from the Zurich Opera House, tony shops, high end restaurants and luxury hotels.
The sign near the entrance says “Lufttemperatur: 24 C; Wassertemperatur: 12 C.”
I don’t speak German, but I don’t need a dictionary to know what that means. On this sunny afternoon in late May the air is balmy, the lake freezing. And Zürichers are swimming.
In fact, a stream of locals comes and goes through the turnstiles: hausfraus, blue-suited bankers, effete intellectuals, toned athletes, students with textbooks. Those entering look purposeful; those exiting appear refreshed and re-invigorated.
I have been in Switzerland two weeks, and I’ve indulged in all the tourist tropes: I’ve ogled vistas, trekked through an alpine meadow, awakened to the clang of cow neck bells, gorged on chocolate and cheese, marvelled at improbable mountain railways and the precision of the train timetables.
What I didn’t expect of Switzerland was a culture of getting wet, especially throwing oneself into bodies of clear, cold, fresh water, for health, fun and fitness.
“For us, we ski in the winter, we swim in the lake or the river in summer — we all do it. You cannot avoid it,” explains Francesco D’Amico, a financial adviser who works in Zurich’s high-powered business core. He regularly walks the three minutes from his office for a lunch-hour swim and meal at the Utoquai, but usually only in July and August when the water is warmer.
The Zurich Department of Sport updates the various regional water temperatures every day online. “12C is a little too cold for me!” said D’Amico. “I am Italian Swiss!”
Every Swiss town and city has its own version of this swimming tradition. In the capital of Bern, it is floating in the Aare River, which does a U-bend around the 13th-century Old Town. Many plunge into the fast moving Aare for pure fun, but on most summer days you can also find commuting locals floating to or from work, their clothing, phones, and wallets secure in a “Bern” dry bag, which they hug like a PFD.
“Floating the Aare is the Bernese sport,” says Marcel Graf, marketing director for Bern Tourism, who floats home from his office almost every day of summer, a 10-minute journey, his business suit in his drybag. “To me it means to slow down, to relax and let go,” he says. Graf likes to put his head underwater to hear the rushing of the water and the “jingling” of the stones: “It is pure refreshment for heart and soul after a busy day.”
In Zurich, the swim culture largely revolves around the badi — Swiss slang for the bathhouses. There are six “Seebads” (lake baths) on Lake Zurich and five “Flussbads” (flow baths, or river baths), three of which are on the Limmat River, which runs through the city centre. Some badi cater only to women, some only to men; some are for older adults; others for families with young children. There are even badi with top-rated restaurants and dance-floor nightlife.
While sightseeing between the famous churches of Zurich’s Old Town, I had looked down from the Münster-Brucke bridge to see a dozen or so young women sunbathing on a large wooden dock on the Limmat River. It was an odd sight, (especially since some were topless): a beach scene amidst medieval guild halls, stained glass windows, streetcars, and bank facades.
They were languidly stretched out on the outside deck of the famous, women-only Frauenbad Stadthausquai, built in 1881 and the oldest badi in Zurich. A Victorian wood and glass rectangle, like an ornate birdcage, this “flussbad” has two river pools, one shallow and one deep, and the outer sunning decks. It looked inviting, but my suit was back at the hotel, and I hadn’t been in Europe long enough to be comfortable without it.
But then, when taking in the view of Lake Zurich from the balcony of my hotel room at the Eden Au Lac a few hours later, the Seebad Utoquai was right below my feet. People were sunning on the array of wooden decks. I could see the splashes and the heads of those going in the water. Two men in full-body wet suits and bathing caps were swimming back and forth between the outer rafts like Type A triathletes. It all looked wonderful.
So here I am now outside the bathhouse gate. I’m wearing my bathing suit under my dress. I’ve got a fluffy white towel hidden in my daypack, temporarily pilfered from my luxury hotel across the road. (I needn’t have bothered — thick beach towels can be rented here.) And I am determined to brave the very cold water. If the Swiss can do it, so can I!
Inside the bathhouse, a café serves a range of fare, from salads to schnitzel, as well as wine and beer. There are ample change rooms, lockers, showers, a sauna. Because the water here is deep, Utoquai is not popular with families with children and is frequented instead mostly by adults 30+.
A men-only section is at the south end, a mixed section in the middle, and a women-only section at the north end. I head north, where some 40 women are sunning and reading books and magazines; a few are topless. There’s almost no talk or chatter. No one disturbs the other’s peace. Photos are prohibited. When I take out my phone to shoot a selfie, and older woman wags her finger “no.”
I find a sunny, unoccupied square by the stairs going into the water. Soon I’ve warmed up so much that I really do need to cool off — but am I brave enough to go in?
I watch three trim women, all in their 50s and 60s, each walk down the steps, splash the back of their necks, and then glide in, with nary a gasp nor a shudder. Each swims head-up strokes out and back and exits looking self-satisfied.
“Kalte — aber schön,” says one, smiling at me, and I know she means “cold, but beautiful.”
When I descend the stairs, my ankles ache to the bone on the first step below water. But I can’t back out now. I’m being watched. I wet my neck and try to glide out as smoothly as the others. It is so damn cold it takes all my self control not to scream out an obscenity.
I can hardly catch my breath. I do four quick breast-strokes out, four back, and then scramble out. Every inch of my body is so cold it actually feels hot and is tingling with pins and needles sensation.
But over the next two hours of sunning and dipping, it gets easier and easier to enter the water. I swim further and further. The lake is clear, clean, and incredibly refreshing. I even duck under and swim below the surface. Others nod approvingly.
One of the older ladies starts a conversation as I come up the stairs the last time. My apologetic ‘Sprechen zie English?’ seems to genuinely surprise her, as if it never dawned on her I could be a tourist.
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