The author baring all in an open air sauna in Malmo, Sweden
Wood crackles as it burns in the small furnace opposite me, small rivers of sweat run down my brow, pooling in my eyes causing them to blink.
The soaring temperature begins to make me feel woozy and the smell of the fire permeates my nostrils. Almost in chorus the eight or so men in the room exhale deeply as they to battle with the heat.
I’m in a sauna perched atop a wooden pier in the middle of the sea. But aside from its postcard-perfect situation, there’s something else that’s unusual about this particular hot box. You see, I’m stark naked, as is the stranger to my immediate left and right. Welcome to the world of naked saunas.
It was on a train journey through Sweden with a friend that I decided to take the plunge into Scandi culture by shedding my inhibitions - and my clothes. Both in Sweden and Scandinavia as a whole, the sauna isn’t just a pastime, it’s a way of life. Like fika (the coffee break) sweating away stress is part and parcel of the Swedish experience.
Swedes revere saunas for their stress-relieving and health-giving abilities
Revered for their relaxing effects and circulatory benefits, whether private or public, gender segregated or mixed, the principle remains the same: a long, indulgent session in a baking-hot sauna with an ice cold dip or shower afterwards. But for foreign visitors, who aren’t used to baring all in front of complete strangers, it can be a little awkward. Enter this writer.
As a precursor, I should mention that despite not having lived in the land of perennial cups of tea, royalty and bad teeth for more than a decade, I still haven’t quite managed to ditch my inner prudish Brit. Growing up in a naked house where the bathroom door was perpetually open, regardless of what my parents were doing within its four walls, I rebelled by locking the door and allowing no-one to see me naked until my first dalliance with boys at the age of 17 or 18 (I was a late bloomer).
When puberty hit my body confidence was rock bottom, so to get out of games - and the showers afterwards - I’d regularly forge notes from my mum. ‘Dear Mr Hill, Paul has a stress fracture and cannot unfortunately participate in PE for the next six months,’ or something to that effect. So, to carry out my long overdue emancipation I decided to travel from Copenhagen to the waterside city of Malmo.
The Ribersborg was built in 1892, making it one of the oldest outdoor saunas in Scandinavia
Sweden’s third-largest city, Malmo is home to Scandinavia's tallest building, beautiful parks, edgy contemporary museums, and what is renowned as one of the finest ‘kallbadhus’ (bath houses) in the country. Located at the end of a long wooden pier which goes out to the surrounding sea from the beach, the outdoor Ribersborg was built in 1892, making it one of the oldest in Scandinavia, and also one of the most beautiful. What better place to break my naked sauna virginity?
Walking into the weather-beaten wooden structure I note seperate sections for men and women, both of which offer direct access to the surrounding ocean. Battling trepidation, I head into the changing rooms where I coyly shed my clothes. ‘Relax!’ I tell myself. Holding my towel over my nether regions I walk towards the saunas.
The sauna complex is split into two areas - one for women and one for men
The complex contains four of them - two on the womens side, two on the mens, one steam and one wood-fired. I opt for the latter and enter. Feeling daring, I take my place between two men and lay down my towel, exposing my front to the assembled sweaty swedes. No one bats an eyelid. I realise at that moment that being naked in public in Sweden really isn’t a big deal because, well, everyone else is starkers.
First impressions? It’s hot. Swedes like their saunas firmly on the side of searing. My companions are men of all shapes and sizes. Everyone looks completely comfortable and relaxed and I soon follow suit.
Many readers may find their thoughts turn quickly to titillation when the subject of naked saunas arises, but in reality, letting it all hang out is far from a sexual experience. Plus, from my limited experience of walking past nudist beaches, the people you see naked are usually the ones you don’t want to.
Admittedly in this sauna it’s a mixed bag with more than a few bums and bellies that have seen better days. However, this being Sweden, the genetically blessed locals boast more eye candy than you might find at your average sauna and I’m soon joined by an impossibly good looking tall, blonde, blue eyed hunk, who could have easily just stepped off the set of Vikings or the pages of GQ. Which brings me to an unwritten rule - try to keep your eyes at eye level. Perving is a big no-no.
An aerial view of the Ribersborg bathhouse in Malmo, Sweden
In fact, despite the nudity, decorum is key in a sauna. While the Swedes may appear to be carefree and laissez faire in their approach, there are rules to be observed. Firstly - and most importantly - shower thoroughly before entering. Secondly, always bring two towels - one for sitting on inside and the other for drying afterwards. Nobody wants to see your sweaty bum print engrained on the wooden bench after you leave. Major faux pas. Thirdly, if you do try to wear a swimsuit in the sauna brace yourself for disapproving looks or ‘tuts’. While being naked isn’t strictly enforced, it is expected and wearing clothing in the sauna is considered unhygienic.
Finally, the sauna is traditionally a quiet zone. Talking is allowed, but it’s done quietly and kept to a minimum, so save those loud, animated convos with your mate for later. Avoid these rookie errors and you’ll be fine - I certainly got into the swing of things pretty quickly.
Post-sauna with his modesty covered, Paul explores the Malmo foreshore near the sauna
After poaching myself to the point of fainting, I stumble out onto the open deck and walk towards the end of the deck where the grey, ocean laps ominously. Hesitating for a few seconds before throwing myself into the open sea where I instantly feel a surge of adrenaline. It’s cold. My heart pumping, I emerge from the water and involuntarily beam. This feels GOOD!
Heading back into the sauna afterwards I ponder at how completely unremarkable the actual difference is - a pair of speedos or swimming shorts - yet how liberating it feels. The euphoria sees me linger for more than two hours, though I could have easily spent most of the day there - sauna-ing, swimming, sunbathing and taking in the epic view of the Oeresund sea. It’s only the protestations of boredom from my friend that drag me away.
Feeling happy, squeaky clean, refreshed and reenergised. I walk away a new man. I’ve baked in the buff and bared my bum to the world…and I like it!
Cathay Pacific has over 70 flights a week to Hong Kong from six major Australian cities, including four flights daily from Sydney and three flights daily from Melbourne. From its Hong Kong hub, the airline offers daily flights to London and from London there's various connections to either Copenhagen or Malmo.
Travelling between Copenhagen, Malmo, Kalgan and Stockholm is quick and easy with Rail Europe offering regularly connections between the cities.