The Public Baths of Copenhagen

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In Scandinavia's most welcoming capital, a haven where you get gloriously wet without getting soaked.

Two steps into the communal shower room and I notice the attendant running after me. She's calling, "No, no - no suit! You must take your suit off." For a millisecond, standing in my hot pink fluorescent tank suit in a room full of comfortably nude women, I'm abashed. You mean I'm supposed to be naked? Apparently - when I reappear sans suit, my fellow bathers seem pleased I get the point. Danes don't just pop under a shower before heading to the pool. They revel in the cleansing, with a capital C. The public swimming baths in Copenhagen - where men, women, and children of all ages laugh, splash, scrub, and relax - are among the most pleasant, civilized places on earth. And they cost next to nothing.

Within walking distance of the amusement park Tivoli and the train station, Vandkulturhuset (Tietgensgade 65, 1704 Copenhagen V, tel. 011-45/33-29-80-00; adult all-day pass $5, children $3, spa and swimming pass $12), Danish for "water culture house," is the latest addition to Copenhagen's network of some half-dozen public baths. Open daily, like the others, from early morning to early or mid-evening, its five pools, candlelit swims, full-service spa, cafes, and salons do ample justice to the name.

At its center is a breathtaking, 320-foot, ellipse-shaped pool called "The Sea," with smaller pools around it where families and children play. In the center of the big pool, a rectangular platform rises up hydraulically to become a dance floor on Saturday nights. The area is candlelit, and massages and dinner are offered poolside to the soothing strains of live flute music. As I swim my elliptical daytime laps alongside unfrantic Danes of all ages, through a floor-to-ceiling glass window I can watch divers silently hit the water in a huge, cobalt-blue diving tank-like viewing the slow underwater rolls of sea turtles in an aquarium. An extensive spa occupies the upper floors, with fireplaces, steam room, nordic sauna, salt baths, mud baths, and aroma and massage therapies. By purchasing an all-day pass to the spa and pool area, you can spend a whole day rejuvenating and playing.

Aquatic oasis, dripping Danes

So, what is it about Copenhagen that makes me feel so deprived on returning to the States?

For one thing, it's the culture of swimming and bathing-light years ahead of what we have in the U.S. Combine serious pools (where you can get great exercise and communal bathing areas) with marble steam rooms, wood-lined saunas, recessed cold-water tubs, mega showerheads, and people at ease with their bodies. And this fabulous window into Danish society is available to the visitor 8 to 15 hours every single day for very little money.

At my local college back home, I swim in a nice, slightly dank, eight-lane pool 75 feet long. But it seems designed for marching up and down the lanes, not a divine embrace of water, light, and breath. Scandinavians celebrate taking care of the body; I learn from Danish women, who move with marvelous earthy grace and assurance in their nakedness.

The morning I arrive on my most recent visit to Copenhagen, it's too early to check into my hotel. So I leave my luggage in the locked closet area and walk to another of the major public baths of Copenhagen. Near downtown, Frederiksberg Svommehal (Helgesveg 29, 2000 Frederiksberg, 011-45/38-14-04-04; adult $2.75, child $1.25) is old (65 years) and lovable. It's a three-story complex with adult and children's pools, massage services, hair salon, and cafe (nothing special). Beautiful art deco mosaics of larger-than-life bathers fill entire walls around an 80-foot lap pool, making me wonder why all pools can't be designed like the foyer of an art museum.

Several wet, sleek male swimmers bound in and out of the pool, enjoying their laps and doing wonders for my own workout. On my way out, I pass the infants' pool and am enchanted by a dozen beatific and very aware Danish babies paddling around on the palms of their moms' and dads' hands. I enter into a cooing and smiling back-and-forth that is so much more fun than my planned trip to a museum. I can hardly tear myself away - and it keeps me smiling all day.

Sweating & showering

Adjacent to the pool area, and segregated by sex, are spacious locker rooms and baths, with large steam rooms, wood saunas, recessed cold tubs, and open shower areas. It's a sanctuary for Danish women - and, I discover, the perfect place to purge jet lag. I enter the marble-tiered steam room and into the daily life of the women and girls of Copenhagen. With ample time to lie, I am one more dripping body, meditating on why Scandinavia seems so much more civilized than my own country.

I'm not sure what to do so I copy the other women. I take a little towel into the hot, honey-colored sauna and sit on it. The woman next to me, munching a green apple, asks where I'm from. How is it that people know you're from somewhere else when you have nothing on? She's been coming to these baths twice a week since she was four years old, she says in English. "It's very good for your health." Sitting next to her, both of us naked as daylight, I figure her to be around 55 and I tell her so. She laughs like bells. No, she says, she's 62.

When it gets too hot in the sauna I stumble out and, instructed by my new sauna friend, climb down a little ladder into a very, very cold pool of water. The only other person in it is a submerged white-haired elder who laughs at my hesitancy about what I'm supposed to do and shoos me out, after a few minutes, towards a row of enormous showerheads about eight feet up that pour gaspingly cold water directly on my head. Next to me a woman is daubing something from a little jar onto her neck and chest. The fragrance is so heavenly I ask to smell by miming with my fingers and nose. She passes it to me, and its lovely scent-like orange marmalade mixed with apple blossoms and mint-lifted by the steam, adds a homey air to the baths. Two eight-year-olds zip by, giggling and prancing like wet ponies, then taking turns scrubbing each other's backs with a wooden brush. A few shower heads down, an old woman energetically rinses her crepey, wrinkly skin with an arm that still shows some muscle. Inches away, a buff twentysomething dreamily slathers soap onto a perfect, smooth thigh.

Then, down the center of the white-tiled room strides a Viking goddess, herding her two teenage girls and packing a no-nonsense and peaceful demeanor into her six-foot frame. Across the wet floor she comes, breasts swaying, ample hips protruding, distributing shampoo, passing out towels, shaking water from her wet head. She looks so totally at ease that clothes would ruin it. Maybe she was once a teenage rock star and now runs a corporation. Maybe she's a middle-aged Danish housewife. Whoever she is, she is Woman. She makes you want to catch up to her level of comfort, to put on weight and swing it around. After a good 15 minutes of cleansing, the goddess rounds up her look-alike daughters in a flurry of organization. They wriggle into their one-piece suits from their positions under the running water and depart for the swimming pool.

So go the people of Copenhagen, whether in the pools or on the streets. They - especially the women - radiate smarts; their style is joyful and contagious. Here in Denmark it's okay to have a body and enjoy it - especially in the wonderful public swimming baths, all for a mere handful of kroner.

More Scandinavian soaks

Copenhagen

(From the U.S., first dial 011-45.) Hillerodgade Svommehal (Sandbjerggade 35, 2200 Copenhagen N, tel. 35-85-19-55; 20 kroner), Kildeskovshallen (Adolphsvej 23/25, 2820 Gentofte, tel. 39-68-28-22; adults 22 kroner, children 10 kroner), Sundby Bad (Sundbyvestervej 50, 2300 Copenhagen S, tel. 32-58-55-68; adults 24 kroner, children 11 kroner), Vesterbro Svommehal (Angelgade 4, 1765 Copenhagen V, tel. 33-22-05-00; adults 20 kroner, children 10 kroner).

Helsinki 

(From the U.S., first dial 011-358-9.)Makelanrinteen Uimakeskus Makelankatu 49, tel. 34-84-88-00; adults 28 markaa, children 15 markaa), Itskeskuksen Uimahalli (Olavinlinnantie 6, Itskeskus, tel. 31-08-72-02; adults 25 markaa, children 10 markaa), Yrjonkadun Uimahalli (Yrjonkatu 21, tel. 31-08-74-01; adults 25 markaa, children 15 markaa).

Stockholm 

(From the U.S., first dial 011-46.) Centralbadet (Drottninggata 88, tel. 8-24-24-02; adults 90 kronor, children 70), Sturebadet (Sturegallerian 36, tel. 8-54-50-15-00; adults 150 kronor, no children).

Oslo 

(From the U.S., first dial 011-47.)Toyenbadet (Helgesens gate 90, tel. 22-67-18-87; adults 58 kroner, children 24 kroner), Bislet bad (Pilestredet 60, 22-46-41-76; adults 58 kroner, children 24 kroner), Vestkantbadet (Sommerogate 1, 22-56-05-66; adults 70 kroner, children 25).

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