Helsinki saunas include a scrub: “Relax… I wash you twice”
As we have had to postpone our trips due to the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreams can be a good remedy. Here is one of my favorite European memories from Finland – a reminder of the fun that awaits us on the other end of this crisis.
I’m in Helsinki and watch the city from its fanciest rooftop restaurant. The setting sun shines on the cruise ships in the harbor as the fish merchants dismantle their stalls in the market. But a meatier scene on the roof below me steals my attention.
These are six bankers wrapped in white towels enjoying a sauna. In all suitable Finnish office buildings – whether banks, insurance companies or research institutes – a rooftop sauna is an essential part of the design. Free snacks and drinks in the sauna after work are almost an expected benefit. A round man is so rosy from the heat that – with his white towel wrapped around his waist – he reminds me of a pool ball.
As a tourist, I’m not invited to join the rooftop bankers, and the few remaining public saunas in Helsinki are in gritty neighborhoods. In this affluent city, most people have private saunas in their homes or cabins. The rough working-class neighborhoods are the most likely to need – and therefore have – a public sauna. So I take the metro and head to Kotiharjun Sauna in the dilapidated neighborhood. At first glance, it’s clear that this place is the local hangout – and rarely sees a tourist. Outside, a vertical neon sign in single red letters reads: SAUNA. Below, a bunch of fat Finns wrapped in only small towels fill a jumble of white plastic chairs. They are expertly relaxing.
As there isn’t a word of English anywhere, I rely on the young window attendant for instructions. He explains the process: pay seven euros, take a towel, a strip, put everything in an old wooden locker, wear the key like a bracelet, take a shower, enter the sauna… and reeeelax.
“Is it mixed up?” I ask.
“No, there is a sauna upstairs for women.”
“What about a scrub?”
Pointing to a woman in an apron, he said, “Talk to her directly… six euros more.”
The sauna is a far cry from the sleek, pre-fab cedar that I expected. Six raw concrete steps with dark wood railings and rustic walls create a barn like an amphitheater of steam and warmth. The clientele is tough and hard-working. A huge iron door closes the wood stove (which burns its daily cubic meter of firewood). The third step is all the heat I can take. Everyone is twice as high, seated at the top level for maximum steam and maximum heat. Towel in hand, I wondered if it would be used for hygiene or modesty. Now inside, the answer is clear… neither.
The entire scene is three colors: gray concrete, dark wood, and reddish flesh. Naked, with wet, stringy hair, people look both more timeless and more ethnic. There is hardly any indication of our century. But looking at their faces, it’s clear to me: this is Finland.
Each guy has a pewter bucket between his legs to splash cool water on his face. I ask about the bin of birch twigs on the bottom step. Slapping your skin with these, says one man, improves your circulation. The rough leaves give off a refreshing aroma of birch as well as chlorophyll, which opens the sinuses.
The second part of a good sauna is the scrub. The woman in the apron rubs the men one by one throughout the day. She was done with a guy sitting on a plastic chair, who sprayed her with water. When his job is done, he looks like a lifeless Viking Gumby.
Awkwardly, I ask: “Me next?”
She welcomes me to her table. She reminds me of a Soviet tractor driver from the Stalinist era.
I ask: “Up or down?”
She pushes me flat… my stomach… and says, “That’s good. Now I wash you twice.
Lying naked, I feel like a salmon on a cleaning table, ready to be gutted. With soapy mittens, she works me. Then she sprinkles me, which makes me feel even more like a salmon. It is extremely relaxing. Going from the depths of my scalp to between my toes, she washes me a second time.
Coming back to the gritty part of Helsinki, I’m clean, relaxed, and confident that – for bankers, workers, and tourists too – the sauna is the best equalizer.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com), resident of Edmonds, writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article has been adapted from his new book, “For the love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.