Adventures in and on Water in ‘Blue-Green’ Switzerland

Angela Dansby

Aside from being politically neutral, staying out of the EU and being one of the world’s most expensive countries, Switzerland is perhaps best known for its quality of life and natural beauty. Much of this revolves around water as I discovered during several trips as a “Swiss miss.”

For example, green transportation in Switzerland isn’t limited to bicycles, buses, electric cars and scooters. You can float down a river for your commute instead! In Basel, some people do just that in the summer on the Rhine to get to or from work or simply for a joy ride.

The Rhine River has a strong current so only a one-way commute is possible. But it’s a popular way to move in the heat of summer, attracting people of all ages, inflatable inner tubes and pink flamingoes – whatever floats one’s boat (er, bum). The most sophisticated travelers go by Wickelfisch®, a waterproof “fish bag” in the shape of a fish that can keep dry a change of clothes, smart phone and other essentials. Observing the locals, of course I purchased one, mainly so I could bring my iPhone to capture the moment after exiting the Rhine in July 2016.

The entry point for the Rhine float is on the bank of Museum Tinguely, which has the greatest collection of works by kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, arguably the most renown Swiss artist of the 20th century. His works exemplify Swiss engineering capabilities and the Tinguely fountain outside the museum is a sign to get your Wickelfisch ready.

While public art puts Basel on the map, it is probably best known for Art Basel, the finest art fair in the world. Private collectors from all over descend annually into this city of less than 200,000 to part with thousands to millions of dollars in exchange for works by famous and upcoming artists selected by esteemed jurors. The Kunstmuseum Basel is also notable as one of the world’s first museums dating back to 1661. Its contains major art works from the last 700 years by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Joan Miró.

Moreover, Basel is known for architecture – from centuries-old buildings to contemporary masterpieces by Mario Botta (Museum Tinguely) and Frank Gehry (his Vitra Design Museum building is a work of contemporary art itself). Its Old Town, as the name suggests, takes you back in time with a maze of alleyways, hidden squares, 300+ fountains and the well-preserved Town Hall and 800-year-old Basel Cathedral (Münster) with fabulous views on top and from its Pfalz terrace of the Mittlere Brücke (bridge), Rhine River, Black Forest and Vosges Mountains.

Speaking of mountains, no trip to Switzerland is complete without hiking some. This I did during my 2016 trip to Basel, taking a chairlift up a mountain to hike among grazing animals … in the pouring rain! I started out dry but became submerged in water when a torrential rainstorm overtook sunshine.

This wasn’t the first time I was unexpectedly soaking wet in Switzerland. When I was 17, I took my first trip to Europe with my high school French club. Over two summer weeks, we visited several cities in France and Switzerland, including the Swiss capital of Bern known as the “city of fountains.” That’s where fellow students and I spontaneously jumped into a large fountain with all of our clothes on. Yes, us American teens made a splash … for better or for worse. Fortunately, we did not get arrested. While the fountain is all I remember about Bern, its Medieval old town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and Albert Einstein is memorialized there as a former resident. (He developed his famous formula E=MC2 in Bern after renouncing his German citizenship to avoid military duty.)

Geneva probably has the best known fountain in Switzerland, arguably in the world, with its Jet d’eau (water jet) in Lake Geneva. It is certifiably one of world’s tallest fountains, shooting water 140 meters into the air. Originally built to release the excess pressure of a hydraulic plant, Jet d’Eau became a symbol of strength and vitality for both the city and country. No, I did not jump into it and get blasted by the jet across the lake. But I did visit the Cité du Temps (City of Time), which houses the Omega [watch] Museum and Planet Swatch, showing every model ever produced. Geneva also has one of four United Nations offices, which offers tours, and the Red Cross Museum. (FYI, since the Red Cross was founded in Switzerland, its logo is the inverse of the country’s flag.)

In July 2018 in Zurich, I enjoyed Swiss waters again while traveling with my longtime friend, Nadina. We sight-saw by stand-up paddleboard on Lake Zurich. The opportunity to do that in the summer is the best part of Zurich. Second are its swanky restaurants and lounges and third is Caliente!, Europe’s largest Latin festival, in early July.  

Later on that trip in Lucerne, Nadina and I cruised by boat across the green mountain-studded Bay of Lucerne to Alpnachstad, where we rode the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to Mount Pilatus. On its summit, we had lunch al fresco overlooking the breathtaking bay. At night, we observed stunning Lucerne with lights dancing across the water that surrounds Chapel Bridge and Water Tower.

Switzerland’s reputation for nature is not “watered down” as it is very blue (watery) and green (tree-laden). It has even launched a sustainable travel initiative, “Swisstainability,” to ensure it stays that way. The country has the highest peaks in Europe (hello, Matterhorn), 7,000 lakes and world leadership in recycling and waste management. Moreover, Switzerland provides nearly all CO2-friendly electricity to its citizens.

Given the country’s natural beauty, it’s no surprise its citizens are outdoorsy and fit with the lowest obesity rate in Europe. (That’s in spite of them being the biggest chocolate consumers in the world with an average 11 kilos per person per year and having raclette and cheese fondue as national dishes!) So when you visit Switzerland, it’s important to relish in its natural beauty, whether you float down a river or paddleboard on one of its many lakes. However, it’s best not to jump into a fountain … unless you have a Wickelfisch full of dry clothes.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).