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Our pools are hotter than yours. Posted by on Sep 25, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

“I would like to point out one aspect of our trip which left us (the majority of our party) feeling… well… a bit violated. It is the practice of having your guests strip nude in front of other people in order to swim in the geo-thermal pools.
…I am a clean person, who bathes regularly and being subjected to this made me feel horrible. Where can Americans who are not used to stripping nude in front of other people swim in Iceland and have you considered how this infringes on our rights to be modest and in several cases our religious beliefs?

Sincerely,
Shirley…”

Such was a letter once sent to The Reykjavík Grapevine.* Their response?

I think they sound a little bit upset.

To be completely honest I understand their frustration: the grand majority of Icelanders see no problem with the public nudity but a huge one with people not washing themselves properly before going to the pools. You could say that shower curtains would help the matter but then you would not know how these things are done in Iceland…

Here’s how it goes. After buying a ticket you enter the locker area through a gate. Once in you choose a locker, place your clothes and other items you won’t be needing at the pool in it and enter the showers.

Indeed, this means you’ll be stripping butt naked at the lockers in front of everyone. You’re not allowed in the showers wearing underwear or your swimsuit. This is to ensure you’ll wash the most important areas of your body thoroughly, and to make it certain there are at all times pool guards watching over the customers from their office behind large windows. I can understand how this could feel uncomfortable to those not used to public nudity but well… when in Rome and so on.

Árið 1904 KARLAR SYNDA BERIR

Á fyrstu áratugum síðustu aldar hafði engum komið til hugsar sá ósómi, að karlar og konur æfðu saman sund og gengju í baðfötum hvað innan um annað.

Talið var að konur ættu ekki að stunda sund og karlmennirnir fóru berrassaðir í laugarnar. Kona ein byrjaði að stunda sund í gömlu sundlaugunum í Laugardal, hvað sem hver sagði, og þá voru karlmennirnir skyldaðir til að vera í sundskýlum.

Year 1904 MEN SWIM NAKED

At the first decade of the previous century no one could have thought of such an impropriety that men and women would swim together or be seen in bathing clothes among each other.

It was considered that women should not swim (at all), and men were completely naked** in the pools. One woman begun to swim in the old pool in Laugardal, no matter what others said, and therefore men were obliged to wear swimming trunks. 

Laugardalslaug.

After washing you get to put on your bathing suit and enter the pools. Some are small and round with signs that are showing the temperature of the water. These are the ones the Icelanders call “hot pots” or heitir pottar, meant for relaxing in and gossiping with whoever you chance to meet there. The pools often have steam baths and saunas as well, equally good for finding people to chat with.

Don’t be too surprised at the temperature of the larger pools either. Warm water is cheap in Iceland and therefore used for many things: heating up the pools, houses and the streets to keep ice off them throughout the winter.

I would definitely recommend the swimming halls in Iceland. They’re easy to find (every town, no matter how tiny, has at least one), clean and well-kept and the largest ones are particularly good for meeting new people and hanging out with friends. Prices are 120 kr/kids, 500 kr/adults, 600 kr for sauna. Here’s a complete price list of the pools in Reykjavík area.

 

*Grapevine is a free of charge English language magazine that’s got a good amount of information on whatever’s going on in the Reykjavík area, a great read for travelers. I shortened the original letter a little bit by clipping off a part where Shirley was complaining about having been shown where the soap dispensers were located.

**To be absolutely honest berrassaðir translates literally as butt-naked.

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


Comments:

  1. Will:

    So, are there any pools that have enclosed shower areas? My family is pretty interested in going to Iceland (at my urging), but stripping down to nothing in front of others is not going to fly with any of them. I understand the cleanliness aspect (pools here get pretty gross sometimes), but surely there is some sort of compromise. Also, if we manage to make it, my parents will be going with me, as well as my daughter. I’m definitely less comfortable with the idea of being naked in a pool with mom and dad (and my daughter, sister, and/or nieces) than I am being naked in a pool with a bunch of strangers. Any suggestion for Americans who can’t quite stomach that level of free-spiritedness?

    • hulda:

      @Will There are some pools that have separate showers as well as public ones. I know that at least Blue Lagoon has showers with doors, but these are in a open shower area so there definitely would at least be naked people walking around. Personally you would be able to get dressed in private, though. The actual pools in Iceland don’t have a nudity rule, quite the opposite – there you’re supposed to be in swimwear.

      Reykjavík Grapevine claims that the Laugardalslaug would have enclosed showers, but I have to warn you that when I was there I didn’t see any. It’s possible that I didn’t pay enough attention but all the same, it might be safer to ask before going in. Or perhaps it would be better to ask about it at the tourist info downtown? I’m certain they would know more about the pools that offer more privacy.

      That said, I might recommend Blue Lagoon geothermal pools for more reasons than just the showers: the place is quite unlike any other that you can find in the capital city area. It has a reputation of being “touristy” but personally I found it well worth the visit – it has an amazing sauna area and swimming in the hot, white water was quite an experience!

      • Will:

        @hulda It’ll be some years before I can afford to go anyway, so it’s not a huge worry at the moment. A group shower area for people of the same gender is also not something that would bother them (they aren’t THAT prudish, but the nude in mixed company thing is probably the main concern). I’m also relieved that there is some swimming that can be done without that concern; that’ll go a long way towards convincing them. They’ve gone to places with topless beaches before; they just stayed off of those particular beaches. Something similar could work here with little trouble.

        Right now, I’m still trying to sell them on the idea. The Blue Lagoon does look very nice. With any luck, I’ll be wandering around near one of your glaciers someday. 🙂