Story of the week: the best saunas in Helsinki, Finland

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* I’m really delving back in the archives this week. I read a story on the BBC News Magazine this week about sauna culture in Finland. It reminded me of this, one of my very first freelance stories as a cub freelance writer. I’m reproducing it here in full – and, yes, the intro does now make me cringe.

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Geri Halliwell recently revealed her new beauty regime involves taking a hot shower followed by plunging into an ice-cold bath.

This may sound like another new age fad for the erstwhile Spice Girl turned yoga guru. For your average Fin, however, the custom of taking a sauna then rolling naked in the snow has a 2000-year heritage as a means to promote physical and mental well being.

Indeed, for sauna mad Fins – a country of 5m inhabitants and 2m saunas – sauna is a whole way of life deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

Historically, babies have been born and dead bodies laid out for last rites in the sauna.

Even today, most families have a private sauna at home regardless of the size of their flat (over 100,000 private saunas in Helsinki alone) and the first thing the Finnish UN troops do when posted overseas is to build a sauna. Even if they’re in the middle of the desert.

However, tourists, who are used to electric saunas at UK gyms, fail to appreciate that there is a whole world of sauna reserved for the connoisseur – much like fine wine or art.

Indeed, the world of sauna is run according to a strict hierarchy with the communal-garden electric sauna relegated to lowly amateur status and the aspen wood-fired sauna, whereby the pile of sauna stones is heated slowly and thoroughly by burning logs, considered the Holy Grail amongst the sauna cognoscenti.

After the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, when Finland’s success was attributed to the sauna they imported from home, the word about sauna spread. It’s now popular across the globe but the Fins still know how to enjoy it best.

There’s an old Finnish saying:

“A woman looks at her best one hour after the sauna.”

So, if sauna really is the best natural cosmetic to keep the body and mind healthy, throw away the products, potions and herbal remedies and check out these sauna hotspots around Helsinki.

Sauna Seura

Based just outside of Helsinki in the suburb of Espoo, Sauna Seura is run by the Finnish Sauna Society, which campaigns fervently to preserve what they describe as the ‘pure values of sauna’.

As such, their members and guests only three smoke saunas and two wood-burning saunas are the king and queen of the local sauna scene. Most Fins dream of bathing in an authentic steam (loyly in Finnish) sauna at a rural summer cottage, then swim naked in an adjoining lake.

Sauna Seura recreates that romantic idyll in the capital, even down to building a plunge ice-hole and providing sauna whisks of leafy birch twigs (vasta). When used to vigorously thrash oneself, these cleanse, disinfect and smooth the skin.

There are separate days for men and women and a masseur on stand-by and. Beware: given its pure sauna ethos, swimming costumes are strictly forbidden.

Take bus number 20 from Erottaja (from Helsinki’s central Esplanade Park) – the journey takes approximately 15 minutes. Pre-booking is required on 00 358 9 6860 5622.

www.sauna.fi.

Kotiharjun public sauna

Family run and shamelessly traditional, the wood-fired Kotiharjun sauna (one of very few left in central Helsinki) regularly wins sauna of the month awards and was recently named Helsinki’s best public sauna.

Although India is regarded as the original home of the steam bath, the Fins made it their own establishing the optimum temperature of 85-90°C and countering the dry heat by throwing water on heated stones to push humidity towards 100%.

Kotiharjun upholds this tradition vehemently making its twin saunas (one for ladies, one for men) half furnace, half sauna.

Apart from its traditional rustic charm, it is also legendary for Pirkko, the resident never-blushing washer woman who spends her working day scrubbing burly naked men with an industrial-sized loofa after they have savoured the connoisseur sauna experience.

Harjutorinkatu 1, 00 358 9 753 1535.

www.helsinki-hotels.net/saunas.htm

Yrjönkadun uimahalli swimming hall

This labyrinthine Art Deco building, dating from 1928, looks like something out of a bacchanalian Roman orgy. Split across three floors are three wood-burning saunas and two steam saunas as well as 25-metre and 12-metre swimming pools.

Yrjönkadun was recently renovated to include high-tech gym equipment while retaining the original mosaic-dappled features. The ornate nature of the surroundings inspires a silent reverence and visitors are expected to adhere to strict sauna rules.

Noise in the sauna, it is believed, will drive away the sauna spirit hence, even for the 6.30am intake of young executives heading for a pre-work swim, sauna peace forbids them to use their Nokia mobiles in the building.

They can, however, pop into a cabin for a quick snooze after their sauna alarm call.

Yrjonkatu 21b, 00 358 9 3108 7401.

www.hel.fi/liv/lajit/uhallit.html

Café Tin Tin Tango

Taking a sauna has traditionally been something to make an evening of. Hence, the owners of this cosy café bar and bakery hit upon the idea of combining a night out with a night in the sauna.

Customers book the sauna out back by the hour and gather groups of friends together to drink beer and sweat it out. It’s the ultimate Finnish boys’ night out.

There are even washing machines if you fancy doing your laundry at the same time and regular local art exhibitions.

Töölöntorinkatu 7, 00 358 9 2709 0972.

www.aktivist.fi/tintintango

Saunabar

Sauna is all about warming-up and then cooling down.

The funky underground Saunabar expands on this maxim, encouraging revellers to warm-up in the saunas then chill out in the alcoves to tunes by top local DJs and live bands.

After work, it fills with young Fins playing pool and sinking designer beers before stripping off and basting like Christmas turkeys in the two saunas for hire.

However, despite their contemporary spin on sauna culture, Saunabar is strictly traditional in its segregation of sauna seekers – two the saunas are not mixed.

Eerikinkatu 27, 00 358 9 586 5550.

www.saunabar.net

* This story first appeared in The Guardian in 2002. Liked this? Try also Last Tango in Finland [pictured above].

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