But how do you introduce this healthy and pleasant Nordic bathing ritual to people abroad who have never been to Finland, and perhaps have no immediate plan to visit? A group of students at Helsinki’s University of Art and Design solved this problem by building a beautiful wooden sauna inside a heavy-duty 20-year-old bus, and taking it on the road.
In early October, the Finnish sauna bus paid a visit to neighboring Sweden and parked on Snickarbacken in Stockholm, close to the Crystal Palace Hotel. Some local Finns were in such a mad rush to try out this perspiration-generator on wheels that they declined offers to change clothes in an unheated sheet-tent pitched alongside the bus. Instead, they stripped down in seconds inside, grabbed fluffy white towels, and disappeared behind the bus-sauna’s pine door to sweat.
This easygoing attitude towards nudity surprised my companion, an American woman also visiting the sauna bus. When push came to shove, she decided: “I guess I’m not ready to sit in a hot room wrapped only in a towel together with total strangers.”
A pink-skinned Finnish gentleman who popped out of the mobile sauna in his birthday suit thought she was just being silly. “You Americans have such strange ideas about the human body, it’s amazing that any babies at all are born in your country.”
“When Americans make babies, they use a sheet with a hole cut in it,” another Finnish gent added, causing everyone to laugh so hard it felt as if the bus would break from its moorings and roll down the hill towards Stureplan.
Key part of any visit
If you are going to visit Finland—particularly during the winter when the snow and ice make inside activities seem attractive—why not go on a sauna safari? In this nation of about 5 million people, there are an estimated 2.1 million saunas. Practically every apartment building has a shared sauna, with different days reserved for men and women. Nearly all Finnish hotels have sauna facilities for guests. The public sauna opposite the Torni Hotel at Yrjönkatu, featuring a glorious tiled swimming pool, is especially recommended. And, of course, a sauna is as important as a kitchen in even the most modest summer cottage.
But you can have your first sauna experience even before you enter the country if you travel by boat. I had a lovely sauna, for example, while cruising to Helsinki aboard the luxurious Silja Symphony ferry. I took an elevator to the Sunflower Oasis sauna and spa on the 12th floor and purged my soul and body in mind-bending heat as the gargantuan ship plowed eastward through the dark Baltic night. I confess to breaking a possible social taboo by bringing a plastic mug of ice cubes into the sauna with me...sorry about that, but that ice felt great while it lasted.
There is room for nearly 100 people in the Oasis saunas, but booking space ahead can be necessary, particularly on weekend cruises featuring live rock music. You can also soak in one of the Silja Symphony’s six Jacuzzi pools, which are visible through glass doors near the towel depositories.
It’s easy to tell the Swedes from the Finns, according to the ferry crew.
“The Swedish people just sit in the Jacuzzis and drink beer, while the Finns go straight to the sauna and stay there,” explained a Finnish attendant with a wicked smile as he mopped the floor.
The classic sauna experience
Over three days in Helsinki I tried about six different saunas (it’s a tough job but someone has to do it). I learned that the Finns take their bathing habits VERY seriously. It’s easy to understand the sauna’s strong appeal for the Finns. It’s a vital part of the national heritage, going back to the days when people living in the countryside routinely gave birth in saunas, as well as prepare the dead for funerals there.
“My own father was also born in a sauna,” said Anja Syrjä, cultural secretary at the Hanaasari Institute, a Swedish-Finnish cultural institute and hotel located in peaceful wooded surroundings on an island west of Helsinki. “It was 200 km to the nearest hospital, and the sauna was a warm and clean place.”
Hanasaari was home to one of my first Finnish sauna experiences. Artists, academics and researchers come here to attend conferences or seminars, and to view art exhibits. While staying in one of the center’s spacious and quiet hotel rooms, many guests start the day with a sauna, which is included in the price.
The attractive building, with its natural wood interior as well as separate men’s and women’s’ saunas, was designed by architect Veikko Malmio. It creates a light and relaxing rural atmosphere that feels a million miles away from urban stress.
After a tasty breakfast featuring at least five types of pickled herring, you can head for the sauna at about 9:00 a.m.
You heap a ladle of water onto hot stones, feel a rush of heat wash over your sweat-glistening body as you sit or lay on a pine bench, and when you’ve had enough punishment in your voluntary inferno, you can obtain relief from an ice-cold shower. Or you can take a dip in the 55 feet-long (16.75 meter), turquoise-blue pool only a few feet away, which has a spectacular view of the brightly colored autumn foliage from panorama windows.
Conference guests typically sauna, shower and take a swim in the morning. Rested and rejuvenated, they then they go to an adjacent room for a morning meeting over a glass of mineral water or coffee and a snack. That’s what I call civilized!
Don’t be surprised if someone you regard as a friend or business associate brazenly offers to whip your back with a leafy birch branch in the sauna; this is considered a courtesy, not part of some ancient ritual.
One of the most important repositories for the age-old Finnish sauna tradition is the Vaskiniemi sauna complex located on a rocky promontory on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.
My host for the day, photographer Seppo Pukkila, told me that the members-only center features three smoke saunas, two other wood-burning saunas and one electric sauna. We first tried one of the popular smoke saunas, or savusaunas, whose walls bear the pungent smell of burnt ash and birch. It didn’t feel like the electric saunas I’ve experienced in the U.S. and Sweden; it was somewhat dark and cave-like inside, partly due to the soot-covered walls and ceiling, and the heat penetrated to my bones. When one older gentleman poured water from a wooden bucket onto the red-hot stones in the circular firewood-heated floor oven, there was a sizzling noise.... whoosh! and the invisible steam or “spirit” hit me in the chest like a ton of bricks. Why didn’t I sit on a lower bench, I thought to myself, where the heat is less punishing?
“Are you feeling dizzy?” Seppo asked as I emerged shakily but content from the 95 F room. After a quick drink from an explosive water faucet (it’s important to drink large amounts to replenish lost bodily fluids), we marched outside through a door into the brisk October air, and crossed a wooden verandah where half a dozen pink-bodied naked males were already seated on light blue towels in the autumn sun. Before I had time to consider—do I really want to do this?—we proceeded along a dock to a ladder leading down into the icy blue sea.
A dip in the 45 F waters of the Baltic gets the blood pounding in your veins. Alert, tingling and tame as a pet dog, I followed my host back over to the porch. The atmosphere was extremely peaceful. All of one’s everyday troubles, deadlines and overdue bills seemed far away.
“It’s like a church here,” explained Seppo as we caught our breath in some simple chairs on the wood veranda. About a dozen men, all members of the Finnish Sauna Society (Suomen Saunaseura, founded in 1937), were enjoying the beautiful view over the lawn of the sparkling ocean and the bustling small boat harbor to our right. Many of the 3,100 sauna society members have been coming here several times a week for decades, and they know each other like brothers. “We share all our joys and sorrows here,” said Seppo.
Written by David Bartal
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