Floating down the Aare River on a summer's day in Bern, Switzerland

It's quiet this time of morning on the Aare River – a little too quiet. The summer sun is just beginning to warm the air around me. The streets of Bern are filling with people. Soon the river, too, will be filled with revellers, though for now it remains empty.

Suddenly there's a flash of orange up in the distance. Something on the water. As it gets closer I can make out an inflatable raft, a dinghy with people on board. Closer still it gets, and I can see the passengers are not paddling. They're just lying there, motionless. As they come into focus, as they're whipped under the small bridge I'm standing on, drawn inexorably towards the old city by the Aare's current, one of those motionless bodies smiles, and raises a beer in the air.

Summer on the Aare River. And the fun has just begun. 

That raft won't be the last for today. In fact it will be the first of many, of several hundred, maybe thousands, which will stream down the Aare on this beautiful, sunny afternoon. Some will be big whitewater rafts with seven or eight people on board. Others will be lilos shared by just a couple of friends. Swimmers will float by gripping inflatable bags; others still will be drifting free.

This is Bern, the Swiss capital, on a summer's day, and there's nowhere you'd rather be. This might just be the most fun you can have in a European city, the simplest of pleasures, floating down a river on a hot afternoon, and it's happening in this place that's known more for politicians and bank managers than unbridled glee.

Huge crowds of people decked out in board shorts and bikinis soon begin dumping their belongings at Freibad Marzili, Bern's riverside swimming pool, and trekking up the Aare, the river that carves a meandering "U" shape through this old city, to prepare for their float back into town. Others, meanwhile, like that first group who drifted below me, have gone even further, taking the morning train up to the town of Thun with huge inflatable boats, plus snacks and drinks, so they can spend an entire day floating home. 

They look like they're having a ball too, grinning conspiratorially like children who've wagged school as the Aare whips them around the corner and they pull out the oars to paddle to the safety of the bank, where their fellow mariners are drying off their boats and cooking food on a barbecue. 

You don't have to be a local to enjoy this spectacle. Yesterday I stopped in at the tourist information centre to buy a dry-bag, which this afternoon I've filled with air and closed up tight. This will be my mini-lilo for the day. I've ditched my clothes at the pool and I'm walking upstream, wondering how far I can be bothered trekking, wondering how cold the river will be. 

This is, obviously, not the only attraction available in Bern. This is a city of history, a place filled with stories and legends that exist like physical beings on its ancient cobbled streets. It's got charm, charm you might not expect from a nation's capital, as well as a liberal, multicultural feel. 

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Still, all of those things are forgotten on a hot summer's day. When the people of Bern get up and see the sun shining and the birds chirping and the clouds gone to bother someone else for the day, they head down to the Aare.

They're all around me now as I get to a bridge a few kilometres upstream. The water rushes below, crystal clear. Some people choose to wade into the river and let the current slowly sweep them away – others, children mostly, leap off the bridge, bombing into the water and surfacing 10 or 20 metres downstream.

I know what I'd prefer. I wander into the middle of the bridge, take a step over the railing, and prepare. Check the river behind me: there's a raft coming. And another. And a few floating people. Finally the coast is clear, so I take a deep breath and leap into the air, out in a high arc, and come crashing down into the cold water below.

Yes, it's cold. It's a river in Switzerland. But it's a pleasing jolt, a refreshing squeeze of the lungs on this hot day, and I'm off, floating, drifting, watching as the outskirts of Bern slide by. 

People in a raft wave. Children on another bridge laugh and pick their time to jump. Swimmers cruise past. Pretty soon the pool has appeared on the left bank and I've swum over to drag myself out, panting, smiling, elated. 

You could do this all day, I realise. Over and over again. The fun has just begun.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

Emirates flies twice daily from Sydney to Zurich, via Dubai. See emirates.com/au

RAIL

For train connections to Bern, see myswitzerland.com/rail.

STAY

The Hotel Allegro (kursaal-bern.ch) has modern, comfortable rooms in the centre of the city. For more info, see myswitzerland.com.

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism 

See also: Virgin Atlantic to fly London-Australia non-stop: Branson

See also: The rules of tipping in Europe

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