Bake, rattle and roll
Rosa Jackson gets hot and steamy in Helsinki as she explores the sauna culture of Finland
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.
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.