Come summer time, beaches are a favourite destination all around the globe. Germans have taken the love for outdoor swimming, sunbathing and picnic to an all new level by introducing the “Freibad” in the early 19th century. Now if you think of it as an outdoor pool, you wouldn’t be wrong, yet still miss the point. A Freibad is like a beach, just without waves (most of the time). And yes, you can still reserve a space using your towel.
Outdoor swimming pools fell out of fashion in the UK sometime in the middle of the 20th century. I personally was very surprised when my neighbour pointed out the location of a former lido in Heaton Park in Manchester, a place he frequented as a kid. Not much is left to see of it, and the English term “lido”, loaned from an Italian word for “beach” gives a hint why this could have happened.
When summer holidays abroad became an affordable option for most of the population, the need for substitute beaches seized. This process was different in Germany, where the Freibad soon became much more than a lido. The Freibad is summer culture for kids, teens and families – even in places that have an actual beach. Sometimes it is situated on a lake, or even within a river. The whole idea started in 1799 with a secluded part of a river in the North German Hanse city of Lübeck.
The Freibad is an essential part of growing up in Germany
3,500 outdoor swimming pools are registered in Germany, enough to bring every citizen within driving distance to one. So common is the Freibad experience in Germany, that more than 50 per cent of all public swimming pools are open air. Many of the others still feature an outdoor swimming area as addition to their indoor facilities. While most outdoor pools close during the autumn and winter season, these combined pools are usually open all year round, giving the lovely opportunity to swim outside in minus-temperatures or enjoy a snowball fight while swimming in hot, steaming water.
But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that Freibad is generally a summer experience. It starts with packing a picnic basket at home, followed by travelling to the pool where a general lack of parking already suggests a lack of space on the huge lawn that makes up most of the area, then hurrying inside to get a place that has some shadow to offer. “Baumschatten” (tree shadow) is a treat on a sunny day at the German outdoor pool, just as much as the traditional food sold at the “Kiosk”, where fatty fries are being drowned in mayonnaise and ketchup, accompanied by a Bratwurst or Currywurst (which is still a Bratwurst, but soaked in ketchup with curry powder on top).
The dessert comes from the ice cream box, where brands like “Cornetto” or “Magnum” count as premium offer. Following the dessert, Freibad visitors either ignore the rule to avoid the water for one hour after food… or follow it to the minute, with kids asking: “Can I go now?” and moms shaking their heads, pointing a finger at their watch… or, in modern times, their smartphone.
Just as in England, where the “Do not dive” signs are often ignored, the German equivalent: “Nicht vom Beckenrand springen” is taken rather as an advice, not an order. “Do not run” shares the same fate – but it is confined to the pool areas anyway. A German outdoor pool generally is a place for running, jumping, football, frisbee and whatever comes to mind. Not to be missed are the diving tower, the slide, and the posing fitness fanatics next to both.
If you would like to feel some more authentic Freibad experience and lack the chance to travel to Germany right away, here is a famous song from Cologne. The band “BläckFööss” (translated “black feet”) published it in 1979. It describes the main phases of a “Schwemmbad” visit, in lovely Kölsch, a local dialect that often resembles English more than German.
BläckFööss: "Schwimmbad" - don’t miss the video. It is spot on.
And here are the lyrics translated in English:
Pool, we go to the pool
Since when it is too warm in summer
That’s when you go to the pool
Where else would you go?
When the kids finally get free from school
(“Hitzefrei” is a German concept of closing schools when it’s too hot)
And the ice cream seller goes mad
We get our swimming pants
And take some money with us.
To swim inside you have to wait outside
That’s how it is. Three quarters of an hour at least.
Then you’re in the pool
First you look out for your favourite spot
And if all your friends are there.
With Will Töller stumbling upon his tongue – alright.
At the kiosk you start to queue
Since you’re starving and thirsty
To get some warm cola and ice cold sausage
Look at Bettina! Wearing a bikini!
That she can afford to wear that!
And when it is time to go home in the evening
You start searching your bike
That’s how it is
At our pool
Where the heck is my bike?
I left it in front of the pool!
What am I going to do without bike?
How do I get to the pool tomorrow?
I’m going to tell my mom!
And she’s going to tell dad!