Estonia's Sauna Passion Has Its Own Style, By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
VORU, Estonia -- Through the eye-stinging smoke I could
barely see the outline of Eda Veeroja, a self-described sauna expert and my
guide to the Estonian "smoke" sauna. As she gently ladled water over the
scalding stones, she turned to me in all her glory and said, "So, are you ready
for your bath and first beating?"
I tensed up for a second and then, flicking a bead of sweat from a brow,
obediently lay face down on a dark wooden bench in the 103-year-old sauna, set
near a bucolic stream in southeastern Estonia. Ms. Veeroja took a bundle of
leafy birch branches and proceeded to strike me lightly with it -- first my
legs, then my arms, then my back and backside. Even as she began to beat a
little harder, what I felt wasn‘t pain, but a surprising warm glow that spread
across my body.
While nearby Finland is known for being a land of sauna lovers, Estonia is
truly sauna-obsessed. In the capital city of Tallinn‘s Old Town, there‘s a Sauna
street and a medieval "Sauna Tower." Estonians talk wistfully of spending whole
afternoons or weekends in saunas with family and friends, of sauna "parties"
where anything goes, of trips to the countryside where sauna visits are central
to the holiday experience.
What is it about these small rooms heated by rocks? Defying their icy, snowy
winter climate, Estonians love to sweat. They theorize the sauna evolved as a
sun substitute, providing the psychological benefits of intense heat during the
long, dark months of the year -- though saunas here are enjoyed year-round. No
one knows exactly where and when the sauna tradition began, but it may date back
Estonians enjoy the familiar "Finnish" saunas, which involve a wood-fired
stove (or electric heater) with some big stones on top to hold the heat; they
are found everywhere from private homes to health clubs. There is also the
Russian sauna, a cooler, steamier version that comes from neighboring Russia,
which controlled Estonia for 50 years as part of the Soviet Union. But the
centuries-old Estonian tradition is the smoke sauna, usually located on a farm
or in a backyard, for use by family and friends. These aren‘t so easy to find --
you need the help of someone such as Ms. Veeroja. The couple whose sauna I was
beaten in hasn‘t done anything major to try to boost tourism at all; they‘re
content with whatever flows their way.
While Estonians take their sauna rituals seriously, they also know how to
poke fun at their sauna passion. Some have built floating saunas or mobile
saunas in buses, and one volunteer firefighting company even constructed a sauna
in the back of an old firetruck.
Personal Journal went on a cross-country journey to experience what Estonian
sauna culture has to offer. Here are the sweaty details.
Those seeking a unique vacation experience
will find a trip to an Estonian farm sauna a perfect blend of nature and sweaty
For 1,500 kroons ($112 or about €95), Ms. Veeroja, manager of the Hotel
Tamula in Voru (population 15,000) in southeastern Estonia -- a 2½-hour drive
from Tallinn -- will accompany you to Ene and Mart Viitkin‘s farm, about half an
hour from town. There you can sauna all afternoon and eat a traditional Estonian
meal in a museum full of clocks, lanterns and other artifacts dating back
hundreds of years. The Viitkin family has been on the farm for six
A motherly figure with a shock of red hair, Ms. Veeroja, who says she
typically spends three to four hours on a Saturday in a smoke sauna with family
and friends, instructed me in the sauna‘s history and rituals.
Early Estonians installed saunas in caves carved from the small hills that
dot the southern part of the country. Later they built saunas of wood, which
vented through the floor. They didn‘t ventilate well, of course; hence the name
smoke sauna. (After a smoke sauna has been heated to operating temperature, the
next step is to open the door and let out some smoke before entering, to prevent
death by suffocation.) They are sooty inside. But Estonians couldn‘t get enough
of the experience. Because they believed saunas disinfect the air, they
performed medical procedures in them. Women gave birth in saunas. Superstitious
Estonians believed they met the ghosts of their ancestors there. "All of life‘s
circle went through the sauna," Ms. Veeroja says.
Farm saunas also are used to smoke meat, which can be a delicate business:
Growing up, Ms. Veeroja remembers her father often rising in the middle of the
night to make sure the sauna temperature hadn‘t changed.
My smoke sauna had been heated for two days before my arrival, to get the
rocks up to temperature. Alder is the usual wood for the purpose, Ms. Veeroja
says, though sometimes dried birch is used, as it burns hotter.
Before stepping in, Ms. Veeroja helped me pick juniper branches to swat my
body with. Once inside, I found the juniper too sharp and painful and chose the
softer birch instead. Birch is the tree most commonly used for these whisks. The
leaves, generally picked in late summer, keep well (they‘re stored dry and last
for months); when they‘re needed for beating, a short soak in water softens them
After shedding my clothes, I stepped in. A smoke sauna isn‘t something to do
alone, at first. The heat can rise quickly and painfully, I found, and the smoke
needs to be controlled. At first, my eyes stung from the intense smoke and I had
to go out twice while Ms. Veeroja cooled down the stones. A mix of powerful
smells filled my nostrils: 100-year-old wood, birch and juniper leaves and
probably old smoked meat.
Later, after an icy dip in the nearby river, we rubbed raw honey over
ourselves, and I washed my hair with water filled with residue from the leaves
of the beating branch. I felt silky smooth, though I still smelled of smoke a
day later, even after a shower or two.
While not as popular as Estonian smoke
saunas, Russian saunas, or banya, dot the Estonian countryside. They are less
smoky than the Estonian sauna -- they have a chimney -- and are cooler and
steamier than either Finnish or Estonian saunas. While smoke saunas can be
heated to more than 100 degrees Celsius, Russian saunas are heated to no more
than 50 degrees. "I think women prefer Russian saunas because they aren‘t as
hot, there is a lot of steam and it feels therapeutic," says Elina Kononenko, a
Voru journalist who recently made her first visit to one at the home of her
In the Russian sauna room hundreds of stones are placed atop a big firebox
and then enclosed by a metal covering. In a smoke sauna, the stones are
uncovered. The only downside to the cooler Russian sauna, Ms. Kononenko says:
You may not get hot enough to want to take part in the tradition of jumping into
an ice hole or cold river to cool off.
While Russian saunas can be hard to find for out-of-town tourists who don‘t
speak Estonian (or Russian), Ms. Veeroja at the Hotel Tamula can help interested
parties locate a few. E-mail her at email@example.com.
These are clean, thanks to a chimney, and
the rocks are inside a box, as in a Russian sauna, but they‘re drier and operate
at a higher temperature -- 70 to 95 degrees Celsius. Visitors to Tallinn can
enjoy a host of Finnish saunas in hotels, bars and private clubs. For a
traditional, single-sex sauna experience, go to Kalma, Tallinn‘s oldest sauna,
built in 1928. There for less than €7, Estonians will be more than willing to
teach newcomers the rituals of swatting yourself (or your neighbor) with a birch
Edward Dubrovsky, a 28-year-old customs officer who recently spent a Saturday
afternoon at Kalma with his best friend, said the branch should be the same
temperature as the sauna. "First, hit your legs. Then arms, then chest, because
that is where your heart is," he said. "Then have your friend hit your back. The
best is to use two branches at once."
In a Truck, on a Raft
Estonians do have a sense of humor
about their sauna fixation. In northern Estonia, a little over an hour‘s drive
from Tallinn, you can enjoy the novelty of a relaxing in a sauna built into the
back of a 1963 Ford firetruck. Tuve Karner, volunteer fire chief in Jarva County
and director of Jarva-Jaani‘s cultural center, charges 250 kroons an hour for
sauna visits. He doesn‘t speak English. He said the idea to build the sauna was
born five years ago after a concert of the firemen‘s orchestra. Today the
firemen drive the sauna truck to concerts for after-performance relaxation,
sometimes also towing a trailer with a hot tub.
The truck, which has been visited by everyone from Estonian prime ministers
to local television stars, has a changing room in the middle and a nine-square
meter Finnish-style sauna in the truck‘s back. The sauna works well, says Daniel
Vaarik, a Tallinn public relations manager who recently sampled the truck,
though the gurgling noise from the boiler in back "is a bit scary."
Mr. Karner, a jovial bear of a man who plays tuba, is putting the finishing
touches on a new sauna, this one inside a 1964 firetruck, and is making a beer
car (for keeping beers cold) out of an old 1977 Mercedes firefighting car -- and
there are 83 more cars, buses and trucks he has bought for the cultural center
that he‘s outfitting with everything from movie theaters to fireplaces. He also
has built a museum with old firetrucks and other classic cars and is busy
designing a theme park that will showcase wacky car collection.
For another unusual sauna experience, try the floating sauna in southern
Estonia‘s Soomaa National Park. Soomaa.com offers an elaborate sauna on a raft
that floats down the river through the park. While you‘re there you also can do
some canoeing, dog walking, bird watching and even wolf tracking. Sessions last
two to four hours and range in price from 500 to 1,500 Estonian