Monday, July 28, 2014

On the piscina trail from Lake Como to the Dolomites

Soon after our plane touched down in Milan in early May I felt like a swim.

The weather was warm and I needed to stretch out after the long flight but when I stepped inside the closest piscina (the Italian word for pool) to our friends' place in Milan I realised I didn't need a swim that much. The four lane, 25-metre pool was stuffy and every millimetre of the water was filled with bodies doing aqua aerobics and squad. I decided to wait till Lake Como, our next destination on our five week trip in northern Italy.

At the spectacularly beautiful Lago di Como I got an even stronger urge for a dip even though my Milano-based friend Jenny said the Italians think it's unhealthy to swim in the lakes. She said they have a fear of being caught in seaweed and drowning like a group of children did in the 1960s, and so they leave lake-swimming to the tourists.

On our ferry trips around the lake the water looked pristine to me. So I wasn't put off but when the locals said it was far too cold to be wading in, I decided to check out the lido.

But the one in Menaggio was closed and was not due to open for another couple of weeks.

Oh well, I thought, maybe I'll swim in the sea at our next destination on the Ligurian coast.

But when we walked down to the harbour at Manarola, our base for a week in Le Cinque Terre, I couldn't find a spot where I could safely get in.

I postponed my dip till later in the week when we visited Monterosso where there's a proper beach.

But after exploring the town, the water didn't look very inviting and when Bruce said if we hurry we can make the next train to Manarola, 'out the window' went the idea of a swim.

When we headed north to Belluno to watch a stage of the Giro D'Italia bike race, I was not hopeful of finding a suitable place to swim.

But on our first day in the Dolomites' town, I spotted a small brochure with Belluno Di Piscina on the front. The next afternoon I left Bruce watching the Giro on TV and headed to the pool.

In the change rooms I met Fabbiana, whose husband was also at home watching the cycling race. She helped me attach my locker key to my cossie, showed me where to leave my shoes and where to shower, a compulsory activity before diving in.

Finally I was having a swim and from the moment I was in the 6 lane x 25 metre pool I was impressed. It was very clean, the water was a perfect temperature and loads of light poured in through the glass panels. When I turned on my back I could see the sky and clouds and as I swam along I felt my body relax.

"Belissima piscina," I said to Franco, one of the friendly life guards when I'd finished my swim. He said they worked hard to keep it clean, pointing to a machine at the other end, and that caps and showers before swimming helped.

Then I joined the kids and adults bouncing off the springboard in the diving pool and watched more daring souls somersault off the tower.

When I walked out of the Belluno Di Piscina I was transformed and ready to get into the Giro excitement in the town.

I returned to the pool two more times that week when the Giro turned Belluno pink.

On the train back to Milano I thought I'd had the last of my Italian swims until ....

Stay tuned for the next episode!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Captain Cook, rainbows and the Woonona ocean pool

The seas were wild the day we travelled south to Bulli and Woonona, just north of Wollongong, to see our friends' Pete and Zac and Marg.

After lunch at the Bulli Beach Cafe, we walked along the headland and looked down on the Bulli Ocean Pool.

Then we headed south one suburb to check out Marg's favourite swimming spot, the Woonona Ocean Pool near where Captain Cook attempted to land in April 1770.

As we watched the rising swell, I imagined his small boat struggling through the 'great surf which beat up everywhere'.

Then we moved down to the flat and circumnavigated around the edge.

Past the turquoise starting blocks lined up like monuments at the south end.

And the remains of the original Woonona Pool.

I dipped my hand in the blue-green water and wished I'd brought my cossies.

And then a rainbow appeared and arched across the ocean like the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

And cast a ring of light like a halo over the pool. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Immersed in the aquatic culture of Paris

De la Butte aux Cailles Pool in the 13th arrondissement.
Last Saturday I had an article on six pools in Paris in the travel section of The Weekend Australian. The story discusses the French capital's distinctive aquatic culture which includes compulsory wearing of caps or bonnets de bain even at the Roger Le Gall Pool in the 12th arrondissement where the Naturist Association of Paris offers nude swimming two nights a week.

Three pools on the Left Bank and three on the Right Bank are featured including Pontoise Pool where French actor Juliette Binoche swam in Three Colours Blue.

Photo from
I also highlight the redeveloped Piscine Molitor featured in The Life of Pi due to reopen this year. The pool was the setting for the launch of the bikini in 1946. For my complete story click on Bathing Beauties and here for more information on Paris' 38 public pools. Note: for some reason the link to Bathing Beauties isn't working; will see what I can do over the weekend.

Photo from

Friday, March 7, 2014

Bathing in the briny at Bronte's Bogey Hole

When the tide goes out at Bronte Beach the Bogey Hole appears, a naturally forming rock pool that's been expanded and rearranged over the years.

It's named after the Aboriginal word to bathe and before white man arrived it was their billabong, their water hole, their immersion place.

It's where people come to wade and swim and see what lies beneath.  

Where children search for crabs and sea urchins around the ring of rocks. 

It's where parents stand on the edge and watch their toddlers play.

 Where ladies chat ...

Or find a quiet corner to float on their back. 

And when the tide comes in and the bogey hole disappears it becomes a hidden pool where only the locals know where to swim.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Salt water soothing at McIver's Ladies Baths

On Monday, just before dusk, my friend Margie and I swam at McIver's Ladies Baths.  The sky was grey and drops of rain started to fall as we walked down the stairs of the Coogee rock pool but we weren't deterred and a few minutes later we were in.

"It's beautiful," said Margie after a moment's apprehension about the cool water.

"I can't believe I haven't been here before," she said after completing the first of a few gentle laps.  "It's like having a salt water treatment."

We watched crabs crawl between crevices on the rainbow-coloured rocks and swam along the bottom with schools of little fish. 

"There's a rock in the shape of a heart under here," I said to Marg.

"That's just the romantic in you," she said.

"No, it really looks like a love heart," I said and pulled her under to have a look.

We swam a few more lazy laps and congratulated each other for the great idea of coming to this pool where we felt like we were worlds away from anything 'everyday', and any care we had was temporarily washed away.

For more stories on McIver's Ladies Baths click here and here

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A multicultural morning at the Granville Pool

It was the tiles that drew me to Granville Pool; 1930s hexagonal-shaped with a border in red and chequerboard blue and white. Bruce discovered them when he swam there after work, and a few days later I was heading west along Parramatta Road to Sydney's fourth oldest Olympic pool after Enfield, North Sydney and Bankstown (RIP).

As I parked the car I noticed a group of older people doing tai chi near the original entrance pavilion. The instructor, an almost 70-year-old Chinese-Australian man said they were there every morning at 7.30. "You should come and join us," he said.

I thanked him for his invitation and headed to the pool's newer modular glass entrance where I read that Margaret Whitlam swam 100 yards of breaststroke at the official opening in 1936 and in the 60s local boy Paul Hogan was part of a comedy diving troupe.

When I asked the woman on the front desk what was left of the original complex, she said all the pools have been retiled and done up and the 50-metre has been turned into a 25-metre. "But along the side wall they've kept a few of the original tiles."

Inside I couldn't see much evidence of the 1930s art deco style except in the blonde and red brick entrance building and change rooms, which architects' Rudder and Grout designed as a walled compound. Just as I was about to ask a lifeguard where the tiles were I spotted them underground in the plant and equipment room. A sign on the glass said I was looking into the deep end of the 1936 Olympic-sized pool where the 10-metre diving tower and a water slide used to be.

They reminded me of the tiles at Enfield Pool except for the mottled red edge, an individual touch at Granville Pool.  I took photos of the surviving lanes 3,4 and 5 and then sat on a bench by the 25-metre pool where I met two sisters about to start their stroke correction class. They told me they learnt to swim at Guildford Pool when they first came to Australia in 1978 as refugees from Laos. "You should go there," they said after I told them about my interest in pools. "Lots of refugees and migrants learnt to swim there."

I left them to start their class and moved into the 50-metre pool as boys from Granville Boys High streamed in and sat on the grandstand near the 'John Devitt Swimming Centre' sign, honouring the local champion who won gold at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

I watched the board-shorted boys start their lessons and then pushed off for the first of my 20 laps. When I finished one of the Laotian sisters joined me in the pool and we stood in the shallows and continued our chat. She said her family lived in Villawood Detention Centre when they first arrived in Australia and then they settled in Cabramatta. "My parents are still there. Just us kids have moved around a bit."

I asked her why she and her sister don't go by their Laotian names. "Because we got teased too much. We got sick of it," she said.  She said racism used to be more subtle but now it was in your face. "People come up to me and say, 'go back to your own country'. My younger cousins who were born here say, 'This is our country'." She said some people in her family are a bit scared and timid but she doesn't let people get away with saying things like that and always responds in some way.

I left her to swim some laps and headed to the change rooms where a group of Lebanese women were preparing for their lesson. They told me they were into their third term of lessons and now they could swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke. They said in Lebanon there was the beach but no pools, and the focus there was on going to school.

"But now we are here, there's no reason why we should be the only ones who don't swim at the beach. Just because we are Muslim and don't show our bodies, there is no reason why we can't swim. And it's so relaxing," they said.

On the way out I spent time looking at the historical display and read that at the opening on 10 October 1936, Mayor JS Fielding called the pool, 'a wonderful possession for Granville'. He hoped it would be 'a place where the adult population will find recreation and the children of today and tomorrow will be able to learn the art of swimming and life-saving under the best possible conditions'.

At a cafe in Granville's main street I told a waitress about my experience at the pool, where people from all different nationalities were leaning to swim. "That's good when they try and learn the culture of here, rather than staying in their old ways," she said.

On the way back to the car, I stopped outside Granville Boys High and read the school motto, 'Safe Respectful Learners' and thought of my father's annual Christmas Day speech where he always ended with the same words: "We should be thankful we were the lucky ones to be born in Australia."