Bake, rat­tle and roll

Rosa Jack­son gets hot and steamy in Helsinki as she ex­plores the sauna cul­ture of Fin­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HAVE eaten raw rein­deer meat in Fin­land, as well as smoked and stewed. I have drunk syrupy brown liquorice schnapps in a heavy-metal karaoke bar in Helsinki and fed my hang­over with fried meat pies called li­hapi­irakat in the morn­ing. have fished for her­ring on a small boat and gut­ted the catch my­self. I have slept in a de­signer ho­tel, Klaus K, where I feasted on bar­ley por­ridge and golden cloud­ber­ries for break­fast.

Yet some­thing has been miss­ing from my Fin­nish ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing hot, sweaty and thrilling. Dur­ing three vis­its to this coun­try in as many years, I have never en­tered a sauna.

‘‘ I can help you with that,’’ says my friend Aki Ar­jola, one of the co-founders of the restau­rant fes­ti­val Eat and Joy. Tak­ing a sud­den sharp right, he drives away from the next restau­rant on our list, head­ing deep into a res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood of Helsinki. Drop­ping me in front of the Koti­har­jun sauna, he calls out cheer­fully that he’ll be back in an hour.

A few men, their plump bel­lies cod­dled in white tow­els, sit on white plas­tic chairs in front of this aus­terelook­ing 1920s build­ing. If it were mid­win­ter, Aki has ex­plained to me be­fore he sped off, they would be rolling naked in the snow.

I dis­cover that, as is the case at all the city’s pub­lic saunas, there are sep­a­rate rooms for men and women. I pay the ($13.60) en­try, strip down and en­ter a plain room the size of a small chapel, big enough for 20 or 30 heat worshippers.

I am alone but for an el­derly reg­u­lar who demon­strates the use of the spiky-looking birch branch that lies next to a bucket of wa­ter. The goal is not to in­flict pain, I learn, but to gen­tly stim­u­late the cir­cu­la­tion. Or­di­nar­ily I have a low tol­er­ance for saunas, turn­ing an alarm­ing mot­tled pink af­ter just a few min­utes, but this one seems gen­tler some­how.

Aki later tells me the mel­low heat is a re­sult of the wood-burn­ing stove, the only one re­main­ing at a pub­lic sauna in Helsinki. Con­tain­ing 1500kg of rocks, the stove takes sev­eral hours to heat up.

Timidly I wrap my­self in a towel and tip­toe out­side to breathe the fresh, cold air, be­fore re­turn­ing for an­other round. Skip­ping the op­tional mas­sage and scrub-down, I shower and dress just in time to meet Aki; I feel very clean and alive.

Of course I know that with this one brief visit I have barely pen­e­trated Fin­land’s cen­turies-old sauna cul­ture. Saunas may be phys­i­cally re­fresh­ing but they are also a so­cial event that breaks down bound­aries and keeps Finns in touch with their roots.

‘‘ Some hun­dreds of years ago Finns used to live in

Ideal con­di­tions: Saunas set amid snowy sur­rounds in Fin­land. Deep win­ter is the per­fect time for a steam bath, fol­lowed by a dive into the snow

All the gear: Beer, a birch bough, a towel and bucket wooden huts [that] were heated with smoke and that is how smoke-heated saunas were cre­ated,’’ Aki ex­plains.

‘‘ Ev­ery­thing was done in th­ese huts and even food was pre­pared in saunas by cold-smok­ing and smok­ing meats and fish. Finns were lit­er­ally made in saunas. They used to be born in saunas and also put into saunas to wait for the fu­neral af­ter death be­cause the sauna was con­sid­ered the most hy­gienic place.’’

Saunas con­tinue to be cen­tral to the lives of Finns, with an es­ti­mated 50 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion hav­ing saunas in their homes. Wed­dings, birthdays, busi­ness meet­ings, ca­sual gath­er­ings: they are also an op­por­tu­nity to shed heavy wool coats and let sweat drip from pores.

In its most ex­treme form — and the Finns seem to love ex­tremes — the sauna can reach tem­per­a­tures of more than 100C. (The high­est recorded tem­per­a­ture ap­par­ently is 160C.)

‘‘ The best time to have a sauna is win­ter,’’ Aki tells me. ‘‘ Sauna com­bined with jump­ing into cold wa­ter is the recipe for the best nat­u­ral high.’’ He fondly re­calls a sauna that took place on New Year’s Day at his fa­therin-law’s cabin in Punka­harju.

‘‘ The most mem­o­rable mo­ment was run­ning bare­foot from the hot sauna to a big hole in the ice that we made our­selves in snow al­most 1m deep.’’

Though it al­ways in­volves pe­ri­ods of heat­ing up and cool­ing off, there is no set sauna rit­ual. Finns may have a 15-minute sauna be­fore tak­ing a morn­ing swim in a lake or spend three to four hours go­ing in and out of a sauna with dips and per­haps a light meal be­tween. The tem­per­a­ture starts at 55C, which is con­sid­ered suit­able for hav­ing a nap.

‘‘ The length of the sauna ex­pe­ri­ence is very per­sonal and changes de­pend­ing on the day and feel­ing,’’ Aki says. ‘‘ The most im­por­tant thing is to stay in the sauna only so long as it feels pleas­ant.’’

Drink­ing, an­other pop­u­lar Fin­nish pas­time, is kept to a min­i­mum in the sauna, though you may of­ten see peo­ple sip­ping a cool beer. Snacks range from sausages to open-faced sand­wiches topped with smoked sal­mon or white fish, per­haps a small rein­deer soup af­ter­wards.

Prob­a­bly the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence the sauna is to be in­vited to a pri­vate house or sauna club (one of the best is the Fin­nish Sauna So­ci­ety on the is­land of Laut­tasaari, which houses six tra­di­tional saunas). This is not as dif­fi­cult as it sounds, since the Finns take a cer­tain glee­ful plea­sure in watch­ing for­eign guests jump into frozen lakes.

In like Finn: Cosy sauna

Fail­ing that, there are dozens of tra­di­tional saunas to choose from in Helsinki, many of them in ho­tels. The Helka Ho­tel in cen­tral Helsinki has a mod­ern top-floor sauna com­plex with views of the city, with var­i­ous fin­ger foods avail­able in the ad­join­ing lounge.

At the lux­u­ri­ous Palace Kamp Day Spa, next to the Ho­tel Kamp and Ho­tel GLO, all treat­ments in­clude the use of the ho­tel’s eu­ca­lyp­tus-scented ‘‘ grotto’’ steam sauna, Turk­ish ham­mam or tra­di­tional Fin­nish sauna.

There is no frozen lake to jump into but no one would look at you strangely if you raced out­side and rolled in the snow.

Check­list

Koti­har­jun pub­lic sauna, Har­ju­torinkatu 1, Helsinki; www.koti­har­jun­sauna.fi. Fin­nish Sauna So­ci­ety (mem­bers only), Vask­iniemen­tie 10, Helsinki; www.sauna.fi. Helka Ho­tel, P. Rau­tatiekatu 23, Helsinki; www.helka.fi. Palace Kamp Day Spa, Klu­u­vikatu 4 B, Kamp Gallery 8th floor; www.palacekamp.fi.

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