I’m standing in my swimsuit on a wooden deck in front of a frozen sea, sweating. I’ve spent the last 10 minutes sitting in a dark, womb-like smoke sauna, and now I’m about to plunge into an ice hole. I thought I was pretty hardcore on the cold-water swimming front, but this is taking things to a new level.
I’ve never seen a frozen sea before, and it is quite overwhelming in its beauty. Here, on the Helsinki waterfront, a vast expanse of white fluffy ice spreads far into the distance, merging with the sky. At the end of the deck there is a metal ladder into the sea. I lower myself down it, my toes and feet taking the first hit of the cold. Gradually I descend into the crushed ice, which is the consistency of a slushie. The ice holds me in its freezing grip. The sea sways back and forth in a huge, slow movement, rocking me. “It’s like an icy hug”, shouts Ella, who’s next to me, and who is also trying this for the first time.
As the cold bites my body, I breathe deeply and feel the thrilling intensity of being clasped by the ice. I can’t take it for long. 20 seconds is enough, and soon I’m climbing back up the ladder, feeling exhilarated, and heading back to the warmth and steam of the sauna.
The sauna tradition in Finland goes back thousands of years, and is thought to have originated in the Stone Age, when pits were dug and then filled with heated stones. The country has more saunas than cars, and it is an integral part of the Finnish way of life, as is swimming and plunging in cold water, or rolling in the snow. The country’s sauna culture is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, because of the role it plays in the Finns’ happiness and quality of life.
One of the oldest public saunas in Finland is in Tampere, the country’s second fastest growing city about two hours north of Helsinki. The city holds the title of Sauna Capital of the world (as named by the World Sauna Forum). Rauhaniemi was first established as a spa and swimming place in 1929, with a sauna being built in 1957. It is on the bank of one of the city’s two lakes.
We turn up on a dark Wednesday night, wrapped up in our warm coats and snow boots. A dramatic sight greets us. A blanket of dazzling white snow covers the lake, against a pitch-black sky. There is a large swimming hole in the ice, which is prevented from freezing by a pump which keeps a small area of the water moving. Under a bright light which illuminates the water, a constant stream of people is plunging into the icy lake, entering via a metal walkway whose handrail is dripping with icicles. As we get closer, we see people in their swimsuits sitting on wooden benches in the snow by the changing rooms, chatting, laughing and putting the world to rights, as if blissfully unaware they are sitting outside in sub-zero temperatures.
We stand, naked, on a jetty in blazing sunshine, looking out over a frozen sea, covered with bright white snow with a backdrop of azure sky. Then we take it in turns to climb down the ladder into the ice hole.
Getting changed, we notice the relaxed atmosphere. There are no lockers for clothes, just small lockable boxes for valuables. Everyone just leaves their stuff on pegs, before heading to the sauna. As we sit in the heat, adventure guide Niina Kärkkäinen explains that everyone is equal in the sauna. Without clothes (apart from a swimsuit), people are stripped of their outside trappings and status, and the focus is on relaxation of both the mind and the body.
As we sit there quietly, it occurs to me that there is a sense of community about this activity, of a group of strangers spending time together in an environment where no one is necessarily required to talk or to behave in any way. It is quite acceptable to sit in silence, and there is a feeling of togetherness, of common humanity as we all sit there absorbing the heat. At home in the UK, we have no comparable communal space, apart from the pub, which really isn’t the same.
We are soon sweating, and it’s time to try the ice dipping. The metal steps down to the water are super-cold, and as we walk in we can see our breath in great clouds. As we plunge, the cold hits us, and we gasp. A few strokes, and we’re out, back up the steps, and up the slope, back to the sauna. Surprisingly, the momentary icy plunge doesn’t seem to result in cold, painful limbs afterwards. It feels as though our bodies spring straight back to normal.
After a few more sessions in the sauna, alternated by dipping in the lake, I get chatting to one of the regulars, who tells me how much she loves it; she loves the buzz and says it makes her feel alive. And I’m struck by what a great thing this is to do, in a country where there is so much darkness and epic levels of cold. Sauna and ice swimming involve really embracing the elements of fire and water, putting two fingers up to the cold, and really ’being’ in your body.
The next day we head to a sauna restaurant on the rapids which flow through Tampere city centre, to meet “sauna shamans” Juha Kumara and Matti Kemi, who guide both Finns and visitors on sauna trips. They tell us about the ’loyly’ – the steam which is produced when adding water to the hot rocks, which is sacred to many Finns. The word means life force or spirit of life, and for Jua and Matti, it turns sauna into a kind of liminal experience. As Juha says, ”Sauna stands between the worlds of living and the dead. The constant flow of elemental energies in the sauna purify, heal and renew.”
Whether or not you see the sauna as a portal into another world, there is no doubt that it deeply relaxes the body, and that, combined with a dip in icy water, makes you feel great. And then, of course, there are the birch whisks. When Matti and Juha produce these bunches of leaves we all, as Brits, naturally feel a little uncomfortable and and feel the need to lighten the mood with jokes. But there’s no whipping and it’s actually very gentle. First, Matti and Juha waft the whisks in the steam, creating a pleasant smell like green tea. Then they show us how to brush the leaves against our bodies. The leaves can also be pressed against the flesh, like a poultice. It’s just another spa treatment.
The final day of our tour around Finnish saunas and ice swimming spots takes us to an old manor house on a peninsula on the outskirts of Helsinki. This is a private venue, so, as is traditional, we enter the sauna wearing nothing at all. Although we were all a little nervous about this, it feels liberating. Then, clad only in towels and flip flops, we crunch through the snow to the water’s edge. We stand, naked, on a jetty in blazing sunshine, looking out over a frozen sea, covered with bright white snow with a backdrop of azure sky. Then we take it in turns to climb down the ladder into the ice hole. As I emerge from the water, everything around me is pristine and I feel reborn.
Sophie Pierce was the guest of the Embassy of Finland in the UK
Places she visited:
Public sauna and swim spot Rauhaniemi in Tampere https://www.rauhaniemi.net/
Sauna Restaurant and swimming on the Tampere rapids: https://saunaravintolakuuma.fi/en/
Sauna Restaurant and swimming on Helsinki seafront https://www.loylyhelsinki.fi/en/
Private pop up restaurant, sauna and swimming at Jollas Manor outside Helsinki: https://kuumahelsinki.com/