Vienna - the capital of bathing culture
by Professor Dr Hubert Christian Ehalt
On hot summer days, Vienna is both an urban hotspot and a cool place to be: the city's 49 public swimming pools are enormously popular with the Viennese, and both locals and guests flock to Danube Island, a huge natural bathing area with a variety of leisure facilities. In the summer, just about everyone in Vienna seems to be headed for a refreshing bath whenever they can.
When bathing was "sinful " and "life-threatening"
Sunbathing, swimming, and splashing about in cool water was not always as accepted as today: up to the early 1700's, nature itself was regarded as the threatening, uncontrollable and anarchic opposite to urban civilisation. In the 17th century, bathing in open waters was both morally unacceptable and against the law. In many official decisions, decrees, and ordinances, the Vienna mayor, the city administration and other local authorities argued that it was "sinful", "immoral" (because it involved undressing) or even "dangerous" and "life-threatening" (given the uncontrollable powers of nature).
In spite of all rules and warnings, however, the Viennese were known to bathe in the Danube on hot summer days, as the original text from 1715 deplores:
Obwohlen das oeffentliche Baaden in der Donau und Wien ... zur Verhuettung aller Aergernussen ... zu unterlassen zum oefftern anbefohlen worden, ... thuet man solches Baaden ohne Scheuch aller Orthen treiben. (Although bathing in public in the Danube and in Vienna … has been prohibited on numerous occasions to prevent problems of all kinds … the impudent practice is still observed everywhere.)
(Vienna City Archives, old registry number 80/1715)
The first public baths
From the 18th century, popular views on bathing and enjoying "the great outdoors" gradually became more enlightened. The benefits of swimming for recreation, hygiene and preventive health were recognised among an increasing part of the population.
In May 1781, one of the first public outdoor baths in Vienna ("Freybad") opened its gates on a branch of the Danube near Augarten. It was named after Pascal Joseph de Ferro, who propagated the importance of cold baths for personal health, and the admission fee to "Ferro-Bad" was 40 Kreuzer. Around 1900, Florian Berndl, a true Viennese original, leased Gänsehäufel, an island in the Old Danube that had been created in the course of flood prevention measures. He converted it into a bath that soon attracted scores of progressive thinkers and sun lovers, some of whom even started the practise of bathing in the nude. In 1906 the City of Vienna leased Gansehäufel and later bought the entire area, making it the most popular public bath in Vienna. Soon enough, a blue flag had to be raised regularly on hot summer days as a signal that the bath was full to capacity. Today, Vienna has enough baths and leisure facilities for everyone to live the Arcadian dream.
Professor Dr Hubert Christian Ehalt (German)