How to look good naked (or at least use the time trying)

While Finnish sauna culture can conjure up images of large bearded men, drinking and beating each other with bunches of birch, sauna is also a wonderful way to introduce a ritual of cleansing and quietness to the end of a busy week.

Wood-heated sauna

Wood-heated sauna

In fact, the sauna is considered the cleanest room in the house, making it the preferred place to give birth and lay out the dead in years gone by.

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Most homes will have one, or at least a common one in the building that tenants can book for use each week. Accordingly, most department stores in Finland have a dedicated section where they sell a range of sauna accoutrements.

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I recently discovered this included felt hats to protect your hair and ears from getting too hot and to protect colour-treated hair. (For the record, I do not wear one).

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With bath tubs uncommon in Finland I’ve learnt to enjoy the ritual of sauna and take the time to use all the masks and treatments I buy and otherwise forget to use.

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While I’m no expert on what real Finnish people do, here’s my sauna routine that I recommend as the Nordic winter draws near:

  • Shower first – always shower before you go into sauna to wash off dirt, make-up and any perfume
  • Sauna naked – imagine if you were doing a facial steam bath and someone added a few drops of chlorine – this is partly why swimsuits are not generally welcome (unless you’re in a mixed gender sauna or have agreed beforehand)

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  • Stay until you are comfortably hot and sweaty – even if this is only ten minutes – remembering the higher you sit, the hotter you’ll get
  • Come out and shower. This is when I like to use a face scrub, followed by a face mask.
  • I might also put on a honey body mask and put coconut oil in my hair (or an expensive hair treatment I promised my hairdresser I’d use weekly and only remember the night before my next appointment).

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  • Have a glass of water and return to the sauna
  • Come out and shower again. For men, this is a good time to shave as your pores will be open and your skin relaxed.
  • Repeat until done. During your final shower wash and condition your hair.
  • Drink more water, moisturise and get ready for the best sleep of your life.
  • Wake up feeling relaxed and ready for the week ahead.
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Feeling very relaxed, well into Monday at least

*Results may vary but you will smell good & possibly attractive to bears.

Ten Sauna Tips for Beginners – Visit Finland

Secrets of the summer cottage

Helsinki empties over June and July as Finns escape the city and head to their summer cottages. While we could rent one ourselves, we were really pleased last weekend to spend time with Finnish friends at theirs and get an inside look at this part of Finnish life.

Photo: Heikki Puomilla

Early morning at Hirvijärvi      Photo: Heikki Puomila

About an hour out of Helsinki, we joined Heikki and Anu and their young daughter on the shores of Hirvijärvi (Moose Lake). Heikki has been holidaying here since he was a child as his grandfather built a house in the same spot.

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Although the house has been rebuilt and modern features such as electricity and running water added, the composting toilet is still outside. While I did scare myself with the thought of bears during a midnight visit, it was a huge relief not to have to check for large Australian spiders.

Composting loo

Composting loo

Part of the joy of the weekend was the chance to experience Finnish life outside of the city. After lunch we met with the local community committee, many of whom have been holidaying for generations around the shores of the same lake.

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We were warmly greeted and joined in a game where we tossed 2 euro coins at bottles of wine, with the one landing closest being the winner. In spite of my focus and good technique, I was narrowly beaten by a 12-year old boy.

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On returning to our cottage, the men and kids went fishing off the jetty, catching three small fish with bait made from flour and water.

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Heikki also showed Miko how they identify local butterflies, something his family have an avid and professional interest in.

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After a dinner of hamburgers grilled on the fire, we cooked pancakes down by the outside sauna.

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We each had a turn at flipping the pancakes, which were delicious and served with jam.

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After dinner, it was time for a huge bonfire, a tradition lit to mark the end of summer and the end of the cottage season. Heikki also let off a few fireworks he had leftover from the year before.

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As the sun dropped low in the sky the most incredible full moon rose to take its place. People lit candles out on their jetties as a way to farewell summer, with a small house on an island soon surrounded by flickering lights.

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After the children went to bed, Heikki, Jonathan and I hit the sauna, which is heated by a wood-burning fireplace inside.

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Heikki made a couple of vihta (bunches of birch leaves) and taught us how to beat ourselves and each other with them to really get the blood flowing (we have been doing it far too softly and slowly apparently).

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Each time we got too hot we headed outside to the lake, where we swam by the light of the full moon. At one point there were also huge fireworks going off overhead.

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I really can’t describe just how incredible it was to be swimming at midnight in a lake lit by candles and the moon, with fireworks bursting into bloom above us. While we all know we have another long winter ahead of us, instead of being a sad occasion it was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer.

To follow: Day Two at the summer cottage, where we head onto the lake and into the forest, finding evidence of moose and something to rival Australian spiders..

Come As You Are

With the sun hardly setting in Helsinki these days, we are taking every opportunity to enjoy dinner outdoors.

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Our favourite places Skiffer and Cafe Birgitta only open in summer and they are now in good company with the opening of Hernesaaren Ranta.

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Hernesareen Ranta (Hernesaari Beach) is located south-west of the city, in the redeveloping area of Hernesaari (Pea Island).

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Bus number 14 will take you almost to the door, but as always there’s also plenty of parking for bikes.

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The area is home to a range of eateries, including Piece & Love Pizza and Mexican Chalupa. There’s also a venelaituri (boat pier) for those arriving by boat.

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Once ashore there’s many areas to sit and you don’t all have to order food from the same place.

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Unfortunately, some food providers are still learning how to run food events efficiently. The night we visited, the Champagne Bar ran out of champagne and the sushi bar was hand-rolling sushi to order, meaning a 25-minute wait for food after a 20-minute wait to order.

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Luckily there’s another bar where you can grab a drink while you wait and there’s also a dance floor for those who stay late.

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These guys knew how to kill time, turning up for dinner in a boat equipped with a sauna and sofa up on top.

And we’ll be back. With the area measuring 2000m² and open all week from 10am-2am, there’s something for every man and his dog.

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Hernesaaren Ranta

It’s a bit hard to find – continue west from Cafe Birgitta, past the public sauna building site until you feel sure you must be lost. Hernesaaren Ranta will appear as if a mirage in the distance, just as you are about to turn back. 

 

 

 

An important lesson in Finnish

With such a mild winter, the sea near Kaivopuisto is not quite frozen and resembles a big bay of slushy pea soup.

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Across the soup lies Uunisaari, a small island that is a 3-minute boat ride away in summer and connected by a bridge in winter.

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The island was once home to varnish producers and coffin makers. Today there is a restaurant and, of course, various sauna.

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There’s also a swimming beach which can be used in winter for ice swimming when a hole is cut in the ice.

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The island is popular with dog-walkers and there’s even a spot to sit and watch big chunks of ice as they float out to sea.

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On the day I visited I was surprised by how many boats there were, left from summer and now filled with ice and snow.

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I heard recently of a visitor to Finland who marvelled at the prolific Finnish artist Älä Koske, whose name they had seen everywhere in art galleries and museums. (Älä koske is Finnish for Don’t Touch).

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So luckily I can speak Spinach and let you know that Uunisaari is definitely worth a return visit in summer – although you’ll probably find the fabulous Cafe Suljettu* has gone.

*Suljettu means closed

Uunisaari

Finland’s oldest public pool – swimsuits optional

In December 1967, a man named Harold Holt went for a swim in rough seas off the coast of Australia. He was never seen again. A tragedy for any family, his disappearance also put the country in an awkward position – because Harold was the Prime Minister of Australia at the time.

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

A huge search failed to find his body and conspiracy theories floated to the surface, including speculation that he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine. The event has been described by one Australian comedian as ‘the swim that needs no towel.’

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Yrjönkatu uimihalli Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

I was reminded of this recently when invited by Verena to join her and two American guests for a swim that needs not only no towel but also no swimsuit. Helsinki’s Yrjönkadun uimahalli (swimming hall) opened in 1928 and while swimsuits have been allowed since 2001 they are still optional.

This is Finland’s oldest public swimming pool and men and women swim on separate days.

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For our visit we paid a small fee and were given towels, a robe and a key before being shown upstairs to our cubicles. Each cubicle had a bed, a mirror and a lockable drawer – very clean and simple – like something out of a 1940s hospital.

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Where I recovered from smallpox in 1910 got changed

Dressed in our robes (no sash or belt provided) we headed downstairs for a compulsory shower before entering the pool. I chose to swim laps but water-jogging is popular, where you run in the water, suspended by a floatation belt.

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As I swam I noticed it was time for the changing of the lifeguard. The woman in her 50’s who had watched us from a raised chair was replaced by a young guy, in his early-30s. When it was time to get out I was relieved to see he was no longer at his station and took the opportunity to ascend from the pool –  only for him to appear that moment from behind a beam, right at the top of the ladder. All I could do was greet him with a smile because, honestly, that’s all I had on.

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Cubicle with a view

Now it was time for another shower and our first sauna. Our American friends had maintained their modesty until this stage but a sign on the sauna door showing a swimsuit with a big red cross through it made it clear this was a swimsuit-free zone. The sauna was around 80 degrees celsius (176 Fahrenheit) and as we entered we could hear a group of women outside singing Finnish folk songs.

After another shower we tried the steam sauna, which was so foggy we could hardly see a thing. It was an effort to find a space to sit without accidentally sitting on someone’s knee.

Photo credit: Mari Heralla for Cafe Yrjo

Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

Time for another shower before heading upstairs to have a drink at one of the tables on the balcony. We each had some water and a glass of sparkling wine or beer before heading back to try the puu (wood) sauna.

This was by far my favourite – a large room with a big wood-fired oven with the door swung open, something that Hansel and Gretel would have nightmares about. The heat was strong but somehow softer than the other saunas and the roof was black with soot.

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Verena threw ladles of water on the fire to create heat and told us about sauna culture in her homeland of Austria. With New Zealand being quite conservative in its attitudes to public nudity (not encouraged) it’s always interesting to hear about how big a part of life sauna culture is. Verena commented that she’d much prefer to sauna with friends than alone, as it is a social experience to be shared.

After a final shower we went upstairs to have something to eat before dressing and being ushered out by the staff as we were the last ones to leave.

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Goats cheese salad from Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkadun uimahalli is open from September – April and occasionally they hold events such as Christmas-time candle-lit swimming. If you’re in Helsinki I strongly recommend paying the hall a visit, as for many visitors to Finland this will be a unique experience.

For those in Australia you may prefer to cool off this summer with your own swim that needs no towel – at the commemorative and ironically named Harold Holt Swim Center in Glen Iris.

Yrjönkadun uimahalli

Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkatu 21b
00120 Helsinki
09 310 87401

Harold Holt Disappearance

Harold Holt Conspiracy Theories

Syksy in the Sauna

With syksy (autumn) in full swing, the temperatures in Helsinki are dropping and the wind coming in off the Baltic Sea is more effective at waking you up than any cup of coffee you’ll ever have. Today’s temperature is forecast to be a ‘high’ of 8 degrees, but reportedly feels like 5.

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It has become evident that with autumn days here being as chilly as the coldest days in Auckland, my ‘winter jacket’ is now my ‘autumn jacket’, as the mercury has a long way to drop yet. With no hot springs around and bath tubs very rare, I’ve had to find a new way to really warm up.

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Luckily we have moved to a country where sauna culture reigns supreme. Pronounced sow-na, sauna is one of the very few Finnish words to be incorporated unchanged into the English language. Finland is home to 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas and we are lucky enough to have one in our apartment. You could safely say that every home and summer cottage has one and if our apartment didn’t have its own, it is highly likely there would be a communal one downstairs that we could book or use during the allocated times for men and women.

IMG_2926Our sauna measures just over 2m x 1.6m and is so well insulated that even when switched off the temperature sits at just below 30 degrees. It has three levels of seating and can fit 2 or 3 people quite comfortably. It is heated by an electric heater, or kiuas, that takes about 20-30 minutes to reach 80 degrees. On top of the heater sit sauna rocks and amongst them is a little Saunatonttu – or sauna elf we were given as a gift. In Finnish lore he is to be respected and will not tolerate behaviour such as eating, arguing or sleeping in the sauna. There is an old Finnish saying, “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – one should behave in the sauna as in church.

IMG_2925Contrary to everything we were taught as children in New Zealand, not only is it okay to throw water on the heater, it is encouraged. The steam that comes off the rocks is called loyly – a word that can be traced back to having a similar meaning to spirit, life or soul. Each sauna’s loyly is unique and it really gets the sauna experience started by instantly raising the temperature in the room.

IMG_2935To enhance circulation we have a long-handled brush that we can scrub ourselves with, or we take turns hitting each other with the vasta – a purpose-made bunch of birch branches bound together and available at all good sauna supply stores. There are sauna specialty shops around the place and the big name stores like Stockmann and Antilla will always have a sauna supply section within the homewares department.

IMG_2945We were also given a range of sauna fragrances, which we add to the water that we throw on the stones. This range includes Eukalyptus (eucalyptus), Koivu (birch), Savusauna (smoke sauna) and Terva (tar). These oils do more than just fragrance the room though – they really add to the cleansing experience and are beneficial in the same way aromatherapy or steam inhalations are. In fact, the sauna used to be where women would give birth and the dead were washed before burial, as it is often the cleanest room in the house.

There is so much more to say about sauna and sauna cutlure here in Finland and with winter approaching I’ll be doing loads of research! The heaters in our building haven’t been turned on yet so if the temperatures keep dropping and the wifi’s good enough I might have to make my next post from there!

Health Benefits of Sauna Fragrances

Finnish Sauna

Why Finland Loves Sauna

A Little Island Paradise – in Helsinki

Saturday morning was spent buying paint and supplies for our new apartment. With no car and a two-year-old in tow we felt we deserved a slice of pizza and a drink in the sun once our mission was complete.

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Ravintola Skiffer on Liuskaluoto

We walked down to Meripuisto which looks out onto a few small islands in the Gulf of Finland. You could almost swim across if you had to but its a busy waterway and still pretty cold. We saw loads of boats go by, including a large wooden one with a sauna and benches on the back deck to sit on while you cool down.

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We caught a small ferry across to an island where there are a few jetties, a shop for boaties and 24-hour diesel pumps. Just further along is Skiffer, an outdoor bar with a menu specialising in wood-fired pizza.

The bar and outdoor seating at Skiffer

The bar and outdoor seating at Skiffer

It felt so good to be outside, sitting in the sun and enjoying the atmosphere which was not unlike that of an Australian beer garden. The music was good, Miko played happily, it was the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

I'm glad I spent it with you...

We stayed a few hours before catching a ferry back. They seem to run every ten minutes or so with the last one on a Saturday being at midnight.

I think this is a floating wood-fired sauna

A floating wood-fired sauna

The next day the temperatures plummeted and we bussed to Ikea in freezing rain, only to realise on arrival that it didn’t open for another hour. With temperatures lately forecast to reach a ‘high’ of 12 degrees we have learnt to savour moments like we had at Skiffer and to make the most of the nordic sun while it’s here.

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Looking back to the city

Skiffer