Last week RBJ and I celebrated our ten year anniversary with a trip to the Finnish capital, Helsinki. After falling in love with Iceland on our seven year anniversary (and then again last NYE), we have been keen to check out some other Scandi cities and to see how they compare. The flights with Norwegian Air were a steal at £80 return from Gatwick so we went for it and booked three nights at the Glo Hotel Art from 26 – 29 November.
I recently read that Finland has a population of 5.4 million people and is home to over 3.3 million saunas, found in people’s homes, offices, factories, sports clubs etc. Doing the maths – that’s more than a sauna per couple! Rumour has it that the Finnish parliament even has a sauna chamber for MPs to debate in and that the term “sauna diplomacy” is a recognised concept in Finland, meaning the sauna environment helps to assist and move forward negotiations!!
Therefore, we decided that a long weekend in Helsinki wouldn’t be complete without visiting a few of the renowned public saunas the city has to offer. And where best to start than the rustic Kotiharjun Sauna, a five minute walk from Sornäisten metro stop and quite possibly the most traditional sauna I’ve ever visited!
We arrived to the red neon ‘Sauna’ sign in what looked like quite a residential road. We entered and were greeted with a “Hey” from a burly man in a red hat who was very pleasant. We paid €30 for our entrance fee (which included two towels) and he explained the rules:
1. Men and women sauna separately.
2. Always shower before and after entering the sauna each time.
3. No bathing suits in the sauna.
He explained that while we had to change and sauna separately, we could meet to chill out imbetween saunas together outside. So we agreed to meet in half an hour back at reception, and I went upstairs to change and experience my first Finnish sauna.
Kotiharjun is a truly no-frills experience and anyone visiting under the pretence it is a “spa” would be in for a bit of a surprise. The changing rooms were basic and I got the feeling that while everything was clean and functional, it was well-used and had been since it first opened in the 1920s. Ladies dressed in towels were chatting and laughing, sat on white, plastic chairs around plastic tables covered with picnic food and bottled drinks. It felt very sociable but quite odd to find people eating and drinking in a sauna changing room!
Following the women in the changing room, I got undressed, popped my clothes in a locker and entered the sauna via the showers. The sauna was one of the largest I’ve been in: it had concrete steps with wooden slats along the top step, piles of wood lining one wall and a huge industrial looking oven to heat the room. I snuck a few sneaky photos at the end when no one was in the sauna:
Initially disappointed by the heat, I soon realised that unlike other saunas I have been to before, Finnish wood-burning saunas need to be topped up quite regularly to maintain the heat. To add steam, you release a valve on the corner of the oven. Word of warning: it only needs to be released for a few seconds to feel the impact!
RBJ and I met outside on the street after each sauna. It was refreshing to go sit in the cold air with steam rising off of our bare arms, but I did feel quite odd sitting out on the street in just my towel! Everyone was very sociable and lots of people stopped to chat, including a local guy who was keen to tell me that I was at the best public sauna in Finland. When I asked him how often Finnish people go to saunas, he told me that he came to the sauna twice a week, sometimes more if he had time and told me that sauna’ing was in his DNA!
We continued with this routine for over an hour, each time spending slightly longer outside as we got hotter and hotter, my hottest sauna reaching just over 100 degrees! I would advise anyone going as a couple to follow the same routine but to take a plastic watch to make meeting up a bit easier. There are no clocks or timers in the sauna which meant I had to keep checking the time in the changing room clock.
I highly recommend visiting Kotiharjun sauna on any trip to Helsinki to experience a more everyday, informal Finnish sauna. If you have time, or like us, love a good sauna, I also recommend a trip to the contrasting Kultuuriasauna which we visited on day 3 – review coming soon!
IN THREE WORDS: WELL-USED, TRADITIONAL, SOCIABLE
For more information on Kotiharjun Public sauna and its facilities go to: http://www.kotiharjunsauna.fi/kotiharjun-sauna/