IN LIKE A FINN

Michael Ge­bicki dis­cov­ers the de­lights of a smoke sauna but es­capes a beat­ing with birch twigs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Perfect Day Travel -

IF you go to Fin­land, you will not es­cape the sauna. When I ar­rive at Len­ti­ira Hol­i­day Vil­lage and the son of the owner, Petri Heikke­nen, says to me, ‘‘ You will go to sauna tonight’’, there is no point ar­gu­ing.

This is some­thing spe­cial, too: it’s a smoke sauna, the wood-fired ver­sion. The fire is lit in midafter­noon and when the wood has burned down the doors are opened to re­lease the smoke, and the sauna is ready for ac­tion.

Once upon a time all saunas were smoke saunas, and the Finns hold the tra­di­tion in high es­teem.

All the Finns I speak to use the word smooth to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the heat of the smoke sauna from the more abrupt heat of the elec­tric model, and I must de­fer to their con­nois­seur­ship in this re­gard.

The smoke sauna has a ten­dency spon­ta­neously com­bust.

Af­ter sev­eral years, the dry wood and in­tense heat proves a fa­tal com­bi­na­tion. This par­tic­u­lar one burst into flames only a cou­ple of days be­fore my ar­rival. It was res­cued be­fore se­ri­ous dam­age was done, but the frame around the door is black­ened.

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The pro­ce­dure is the same as in any other sauna. Shower, sit, sweat, cool off, then do it all over again.

When I en­ter there are al­ready five naked mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men parked on the benches. The rich, tarry smell is sup­pos­edly ther­a­peu­tic, and just one of sev­eral ad­van­tages of the smoke sauna.

When things re­ally get steamy in the sauna, the Finns lash one an­other with birch branches. The ef­fect is won­der­fully re­ju­ve­nat­ing for the skin, or so I am told, al­though I see no ev­i­dence of flag­el­la­tion.

One of my fel­low per­spirees has served time in the Fin­nish army as part of the UN peace­keep­ing force in Si­nai. The tem­per­a­ture is in­cred­i­ble. ‘‘ Fifty de­grees some­times,’’ he tells me. And what was the first thing th­ese Fin­nish sol­diers built? A sauna, nat­u­rally.

Af­ter about 20 min­utes I reach a sat­is­fy­ing level of melt­down, so I head out, pink and steam­ing, and plunge into the lake at the front door. The wa­ter is shock­ingly cold. At the height of sum­mer, Heikke­nen tells me, the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture may go as high as 18C. On a mild night in early June, it’s freez­ing. I breast­stroke out about 10m and by the time I get back my whole body aches, the way your head feels when you eat ice cream too quickly.

I dry off and join the men at the front of the sauna and sit around swig­ging beer in a com­radely way.

It’s 11pm and a gen­tle twi­light has just set­tled. At this time of the year the sun doesn’t dip much be­low the hori­zon in th­ese lat­i­tudes, and night amounts to barely an hour of shadow.

Out of deference to my lack of agility with the lan­guage, the con­ver­sa­tion switches eas­ily into English. The Fin­nish lan­guage ap­pears im­pen­e­tra­ble to any­one not born to it. In a whole week in Fin­land, I man­age to mas­ter only one word: kit­tos , or thank you. For­eign­ers do study Fin­nish, but death usu­ally in­ter­venes be­fore they get far.

For­tu­nately, all Finns speak at least one other lan­guage and the most pop­u­lar choice th­ese days is English.

It’s al­most mid­night by the time we dress. I feel won­der­fully clean, healthy and tired.

Heikke­nen is pleased, too. He has a twin­kle in his eye. ‘‘ To­mor­row we can try you with the birch,’’ he says, pat­ting me on the back.

To­mor­row I am leav­ing early. But I don’t want to spoil it for him. I nod and keep quiet.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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