Few are the major cities that afford outdoor swimming at their very centre. Geneva, by virtue of its site at the head of one of Western Europe’s largest lakes, has always been an exception. There are several points at which the water is accessible to bathers in the city centre. Bain des Paquais is the most popular and longest established, however.
“Bain des Paquais is Geneva at its most relaxed and informal”, says Jenny Holdcroft, an Australian, who has lived in and around the city for 14 years. “It is one of the few places where the Genevan’s let down their guard”.
Entry is just CHF 2 and access is over a bridge from the Quai de Mont Blanc, on to what is essentially an island in the lake.
Facilities when you get on the island are basic, most people use a towels to change, for example. There are a wide variety of ways to enter the water, however, from the rock beach on the bank that faces the lake to the pontoons that look back to the city. The real appeal, though, is the glorious water. During a July heatwave this had reached 24 degrees centigrade, and it has a clean, clear freshwater quality that is an unusual joy. The smooth rocky bottom is clearly visible, as is a healthy range of water-born vegetation. Even at this temperature, the water is a heavenly antidote to the searing city’s sweaty frustrations.
The lake is surprisingly shallow around the swimming area – as it is along much of its bank. Wading on the lake floor is comfortable, although the currents can be surprisingly strong. Lifeguards supervise the swimming areas, although, in common with the free-wheeling feel of Bains des Paquais, they seem relaxed about whether you swim inside or outside the buoys that make the formal extent of the facility.
There are platforms and boards from which to dive, a range of rocky outcrops on which to deport oneself as well as massages, hamams and water polo. There are also inexpensive, beach-style eating facilities. I enjoyed cold beef, roast potatoes and salad for CHF 12 and a pression bier CFH 4.
Viewed from the water, the city and surrounding mountains provide an exceptional backdrop. Snowy peaks are visible even in the high summer, and the Haussmannesque grandeur of the buildings provide a watery outlook with few parallels. Little wonder that it provides the excuse for even the starchiest citizens to unbutton?
Photographs © Tim Dawson