TRAVELSHORTS - Sweating in Estonia; a Sauna Ritual

Another copper ladle full of water was thrown onto the hot coals, immediately rising as steam, blocking my view from the other faces sat in semi-circular formation.  This was the worst part, the intense blast of heat I could now feel in distinctly memorable places; my eyelids, the inside of my nose and the tips of my toes.  But then the steam settled, leaving a more pleasant blanket of warm air, well, for the moment anyway. 

Magnus, my host on this small island just west of mainland Estonia, Hiiumaa, was quick to point out the strong sauna tradition in Estonia dating back some 800 years, despite its perhaps heavier affiliation with the Finns and Swedes across the Baltic Sea and the neighbouring Russians.  Indeed, driving around the island that day I spotted countless sauna houses, all identifiable by their petite size and close proximity to the family home, often surrounded by neatly aligned bundles of logs.

As the egg-timer on the wall began to shift its appearance, I tried to gauge how others were feeling because I was now really starting to feel the heat and desperately wanted to go and duck my head into an ice bucket somewhere.  No one else really seemed that perturbed, though, so I stuck it out a bit longer to save face, before hastily departing a couple of minutes later.

I was eventually joined outside by our party of sauna-goers all adorned in towels to waist height with a local beer in one hand and an open black-bread sandwich in the other, part of the ritual in-between sessions.  Stories and conversation were exchanged; some in English for my benefit but otherwise in Estonian, a language which majestically rose and fell in its poetic delivery and one whose intonation and rhythm I was still trying my best to tune into.  With one sauna at our disposal the female members of the family had gone before us and were now out taking a stroll over the adjacent fields carpeted with bright buttercups; such an order resembled the format of traditional public saunas in which there were separate areas for males and females.


Roughly ten minutes had passed and so back we went, re-assuming our positions atop the spruce panels.  We’d go onto repeat this back and forth process over the next hour, pausing outside to cool off and comment upon the midsummer’s sky which even past midnight still held the light glow of red embers.  As we talked in such intimate proximity that evening and then met the rest of the family after, it made me realise what a collective and unifying experience this was.  I was so used to seeing friends and family across from a restaurant table or amid the noise and hustle of a Saturday wine-bar.  There was something genuinely authentic, though, about this tradition which was so much more than just sweaty brows; a celebration of family, of friends, of nature and of life itself.