Secrets of the sauna

The beautiful blonde lady who was my official guide on a tour of Finland had an idea, writes Robin Mead. “Now,” she said, “we will take off all our clothes and have a sauna.”

The Finns often seem like a rather cold and emotionless people. Perhaps that is why they love saunas so much. And there is no escaping those saunas: in a country of only about four million people there are reckoned to be well over a million saunas. Finns talk about their home saunas with the sort of pride that we reserve for our new cars or our refitted kitchens.

Most people have probably seen, or even tried, a modern, electrically-heated sauna. Picture a sort of broom cupboard, fitted with slatted bench seats, where you sit on a towel and throw ladles of water over electric “coals”. The resultant cloud of steam leaves you lobster pink, very breathless, and feeling as though you are about to melt untidily all over the floor.

A devilish invention. But it is a considerable improvement on the old, wood-fired, saunas where you “bathe” in smoke instead of steam. They leave you breathless and melting too, but they also leave you grey-rimmed and smelling like the aftermath of a garden bonfire. Because they are seen as traditional, however, wood-fired saunas are still all the rage in Finland. The president has one, and so do most hotels. Their supporters believe that a wood-fired sauna helps them to commune with what they colourfully call “the nature”. And Finns are determined that every visitor should try out the sauna custom which they have elevated almost to the status of a religion.

As the prestigious Finnish Sauna Society puts it in its official booklet, Let’s Have a Sauna: “Hostility melts in the steam as the birch whisks swish, and stubborn minds begin to accept compromise. Rank and protocol are shed in the dressing-room with one’s clothes, and it is hard to maintain pompous dignity in a birthday suit.”

I had read those lines in Helsinki with growing alarm. I particularly didn’t like the sound of birch whisks. But a few days later, with the attractive blonde acting as my guide, I found myself deep in the snow-covered countryside. It is very beautiful and very peaceful, but the farmers of old must have had a tough time in winter. I began to understand why their wooden homes had to have one special room where they could wash and warm themselves after a day in the wintry fields. In that same room clothes were dried, meat was cured, and babies were born.

Such social history draws one back to the literature of the Finnish Sauna Society, which is to sauna what the Royal and Ancient is to golf. I learned that the birch whisk, or vihta, is there not for flagellation purposes but primarily because it “speeds up the sweating process, and gives a pleasant smell to the sauna”.

I did, however, discover a new problem: in Finland’s towns and cities the saunas are staffed by muscular middle-aged women who are employed to soap down male customers. They go by the unfortunate name of “scrubbers”. And they have, said the Finnish Sauna Society not very reassuringly, “seen dozens of naked men”.

It was beginning to dawn on me that there is nothing lascivious, let alone downright naughty, about a sauna. The Finnish tourism authorities underline this by revealing that only families go in for mixed bathing, and by warning primly: “One must behave in the sauna as one would behave in church. Noise, shouting and swearing are not permitted.”

Still, the blonde’s invitation to take a sauna in the countryside was tempting. She stressed the benefits. “For the busy modern man, sauna is the best medicine for stress,” she wheedled. I was weakening fast. She produced her trump card. “Come, let’s take a sauna,” she said. “Your Duke of Edinburgh, he has a sauna whenever he comes to Finland.”

Well, no self-respecting travel writer can allow himself to be upstaged by Prince Philip. Deep in the country we found an electric sauna, as opposed to a malodorous wood smoke one, and (in separate cabins, in case you had been wondering) divested ourselves of our clothes. I was prepared for the worst, but the sauna was not too bad, I suppose – although I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

It was very hot, however, and after some minutes – remembering my instructions before the beautiful blonde had departed to the ladies’ facilities – I rushed from the sauna and jumped into the icy waters of the river outside.

I had quite forgotten that I was still stark naked. A party of Finnish hikers, out enjoying “the nature” and standing on a bridge right next to my bathing spot, could have had a nasty turn. Instead, they nodded politely and wished me “Good evening.” Like the “scrubbers” they had seen it all before, and nobody batted an eyelid.

Quite an anticlimax, really. Doubly so, in fact, because scuttling back to the sauna to recover both my clothes and what remained of my self-respect, I missed seeing the beautiful blonde’s rush down to the river.

Another, slightly less desirable, reward awaited me. Now, said my guide as we got back into her car, I qualified for the “savusauna”. No need to panic – it wasn’t another kind of sauna but a special post-sauna supper of beer and vorshmack (a delicious mixture of minced herring, minced lamb and mashed potatoes, served with liberal helpings of garlic bread).

There is one serious drawback to such a lovely meal. Afterwards, one feels in serious need of….a sauna!




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