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This week Ron Popper dives into the river for a refreshing travel perspective

Diving into the Marzilibad

(Keystone)

The summer season has just started at one of Berne's most curious, colourful and endearing sites.

Hordes of teenagers, old hippies, civil servants, foreigners, exhibitionists, amateur jugglers and health freaks are among the thousands making tracks daily to seek out the sun at the Marzilibad, the riverside open-air lido that has become an institution, and indeed a way of life, for many Bernese people and tourists.

The Marzilibad, approximately the size of three football pitches, is an area sandwiched between the river Aare and the steep embankment which runs up to the towering edifice of parliament and the centre of Berne.

The baths themselves (three medium-sized pools), situated in the centre of the grass, are but a hop, step and a leap into the river. At one end of the baths, a hermetically sealed wooden "women only" section allows sun-loving women to strip off completely away from male curiosity.

As if to underline the unique nature of the Marzilibad, a "men only" enclosure (not hermetically sealed) at the opposite end of the baths ensures a little male privacy. It is usually occupied by elderly men in post-war bathing trunks seeking sanctuary from the heaving or slumbering flesh that fills almost every inch of grass on a hot summer's day.

Over the weekend, as many as 10,000 people are massed together defying ozone layer warnings. During the week, once the office workers have returned to the centre of town after their lunch break, there are still hundreds of sun-seekers. Either Berne has an extraordinary unofficial unemployment rate, or the Bernese are highly inventive when it comes to offering excuses for being off work.

Relaxation and tanning may be the stated aim of a visit to a packed Marzilibad at the height of summer, but there's also a vicarious (usually male) game of body watching going on. Preening teenies, topless women, none-too-successful body-builders - they're all part of a restless kaleidoscope. Frankly, many people look better with their clothes on.

Having successfully navigated a battlefield of browning bodies, the three favourite destinations tend to be the restaurant, the pool, or the river. It is along the tree-lined river that one of Berne's most interesting rituals takes place.

Every year, as soon as the riverside barometer indicates the water temperature has nudged 18 degrees, thousands of people float down the river, dragged along by the lazy but deceptively dangerous current.

From Marzilibad, they walk like lemmings a kilometre or so up the river towpath, stepping quickly over the sizzling tarmac, and ease themselves down a half dozen steps into the Aare or, more dramatically, jettison themselves off the low Schönausteg bridge, usually screaming to ensure their feat of heroism/act of lunacy does not go unnoticed.

After a few minutes, the swimmers start clutching at the iron railings to pull themselves out at Marzilibad. Failure to do so can prove fatal, as the next stop is an electricity sub-station weir. The last-minute scramble is for real.

The river is probably the main source of conversation among sunbathers. Friends are greeted, not in the usual form, but with the question: "Syd dir scho mau gsi?" (Have you already been in...?). Every aspect of the joys of Aare bathing is then examined in details, and comparisons drawn to yesterday/last week/last year. It is a perennial refrain.

It is maybe hard to imagine but one year ago this field of flesh was deserted and under water. Melting water from last year's unusually heavy snows in the Alps led to widespread flooding along the Aare, as well as other areas.

The waters rose by two metres, flooded the Marzilibad and provided a hug pool for ducks and the occasional swan. Not only was the summer a washout, but the river was icy and in part polluted. It recalled a time, three generations back, when the Marzilibad was part of the river before the land was reclaimed and built up.

There is one other key attraction. The Marzilibad is free; it's one of the very few swimming baths in Berne where no entrance fee is charged. Sporadically, earnest debates are held in the city parliament to slap on an entrance fee. Controversial stuff indeed - and the measure is always defeated. The Marzilibad institution goes beyond deficit guarantees.

And then it's all over for another day. By eight in the evening, when the gates close, dozens of sun-dazed stragglers wander lazily back up the hill towards the city centre or head back to the cars they have left, Italian-style, blocking the narrow adjoining streets. When they pop questions about the weather forecast for tomorrow, unspoken thoughts are already taking shape.

by Ron Popper



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