The Bathing Ladies of Varberg
Varberg’s Kallbadhuset sits on the west coast of Sweden. A wooden structure adorned with Moorish details – a revival style popular in 19th-century Europe – it appears out of place amongst the town’s industrial harbour.
Originally built in 1866 by Swedish architect Wilhelm Gagner, the version standing in the town’s harbour today is the third of its kind. It was modelled on Gagner’s design after the original structure and a subsequent rebuild were destroyed by storms in 1884 and 1906. This detail of Kallbadhuset’s history is a testament to its beloved status amongst the Varberg community: the elements that destroyed it are the ones they seek to engage with.
Further down the coastline, there is another, more simple bathing spot. An L-shaped building with a flat roof and concrete porch that looks out onto the coastline. Inside, there is a room filled with the paraphernalia of community admin – a kettle, a spare change box, some folders – and a small sauna with stacked seating. A single promenade runs in a straight line from the sheltered changing area to the sea. At its end, two ladders extend into the cold water. This is Skarpa Kvinns, a community-ran bathing association located at Skarpa Norde, an area of Varberg’s coast designated for women to bathe nude.
The history of the area is said to date back to the 1600s, when stonemasons from the nearby quarry would run to the water and wash the dust of the day from them. Over time, fences were erected and the site formalised as an area for bathing.
Then, in 2011, following the temporary closure of Kallbadhuset due to storm damage, a founding member asked on Facebook: “A women’s sauna – how hard could it be?” After all, Hoppets Bröder, the male nude bathing association located directly next door, had been operating their’s since the 60s. Skarpa Kvinns was officially formed in 2011 and the sauna held its inaugural burn in 2013.
Every day, women of all ages and backgrounds visit. Few of them bother with the sauna, instead undressing on the concrete porch and walking briskly to the sea. Some wear swimming shoes and hats to temper the cold, but mostly they happily stand in towels and make small talk as they wait their turn by the ladder. Some dip for a second, others brave a few strokes, but all return at a slower pace to Skarpa Kvinn’s shelter, as though now immune to the bitter Nordic wind.
“I think it’s healthy,” explains Asta, who bathes three times a week. “The saltwater helps, being out in nature helps. Doctors are quick to prescribe, but sometimes it’s the simplest things in life you need.” She advises to relax, take a deep breath and go in slow. “It’s good for the soul,” she finishes.
Some of the women take quick walks or slow jogs to warm themselves up ahead of their dip, others profess it isn’t needed as “your circulation is enormous” after. Some come together – a group of 20 women in their seventies (“in the best age of their lives” according to Asta) meet every day at 11am; two midwives from the local maternity ward always swim together on their lunch break – while others seek solitude. No matter what, they greet one another warmly, providing the comfort of proximity without intrusion.
As the women dip, the water is clear and calm, but the weather can be perilous. Asta warns of waves reaching over your head. It’s the only time many of the women won’t visit. Written in the rules of the association is a quote from a member: "If it's very windy, I think before I swim because it's not just myself I'm putting at risk. If something happens, the people trying to save me could also get hurt. Sometimes it's quite enough to stand on the bridge when the sea foam swirls and the waves crash over."
They ask that all should “take good care of each other, without demanding anything in return.” They wait for sole bathers to resurface and lend a hand when the ladder is slippy; they offer to take photos of first-timers and never judge their nerves; they want everyone who visits to share the experience they have. This is the spirit of Skarpa Kvinns – a place where self-care and caring for others are synonymous.
And although the salt water and fresh air are surely beneficial, perhaps this is the simplest thing in life we need afterall.
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