Helsinki

We had arranged in advance to stay with Angel and Paula on Warmshowers, a spanish couple now living in Helsinki. We turned up outside their house on Saturday afternoon utterly exhausted.

They were incredible. They welcomed us in to their lovely, warm home with smiles and friendliness. Paula had cooked an amazing lunch of salmon soup and homemade brown bread. It smelt amazing. Deciding that showering was the priority, we took turns to rinse away the dirt and grime of the last ten days in one of the best showers I have ever had. 

Emerging clean, and completely dry for the first time since we left Saint Petersburg, we sat down and tucked in to her delicious soup. It was amazing to be so well looked after. Despite wanting nothing more than to lie down and rest our eyes, we forced ourselves to do all the jobs that we needed to do like laundry and drying out tents and sleeping bags so that we could enjoy the next day.

Yesterday we spent the day eating food, drinking coffee and wandering round the beautiful centre of Helsinki. It was beautiful.

However, it was the evening that was really fun. Angel, our host, asked us if we would like to try a traditional Finnish Sauna and of course, we said yes. He gave us a choice of 3; one of the oldest and most traditional saunas in Finland, a new, modern take on a traditional sauna that has many rules to follow but seeks to help customers find peace, and a third, free sauna that is built and run by volunteers next to the sea. At this point Paula interjected and just said “It’s the best!” If I wasn’t already persuaded by the hippy community sauna, I was now! 

And what a great choice!

Sompasauna is, as far as I can understand, totally unique in Helsinki, and everyone who goes thinks it is the best. We followed Angel on our bicycles (which, incidentally felt amazing to ride as we had no gear on whatsoever!) through the streets of housing down toward the sea. We cycled past old industrial buildings, big red brick chimneys and giant metal structures which were no longer functional, but, Angel explained, were being reborn into music and art festival venues. I could see why, the structures themselves towered over huge open spaces and made for a dramatic and beautiful skyline. 

After passing these, we ended up weaving our way through a construction site, Angel seemingly just following his nose toward Sompasauna. Graffitied and derelict buildings lined our route as we darted round red tape and plastic barriers. Eventually, we arrived. 

Three small shacks, built from reclaimed wood in a charming eclectic style, stood apart from the construction site on the edge of the sea. A giant, rust-coloured elephant sculpture, built from found metal, towered beside the shacks, a beautiful guardian of this special place. Two of the three shacks have smoking chimneys and all are covered in paintings and murals. There are crude benches built outside and a set of stairs leading to the sea behind the largest of the buildings. 

As we locked our bicycles to a some wooden sleepers, naked people milled about. Some were getting changed, either into or out of their clothes, some had just been swimming in the sea and were hurriedly wrapping towels around themselves and others were relaxing with a beer, laughing and chatting. Everyone seemed to be smiling. 

We joined in, getting undressed as the wind whistled around us, hanging our clothes on one of the many metal pegs in the outside wall and hoping they didn’t get blown away while we were inside. 

Naked, we crept through the tarpaulin that covers the entrance to the largest of the two saunas and then through the stiff wooden door beyond it. Inside it was packed. 

The room was about 1.5m wide and 6m long. It was divided into three and when we entered, we stood for a while in the middle section, next to the wood burning stove. It was warm here, but not too hot, being at ground level. On my left, there was a platform with seating built around it in a U-shape. I guess it was designed to fit maybe ten people comfortably. On the other side were two more benches, each for 3 people. Every spot is full so we waited until a seat on one or the other side of us became available.

After a few minutes some people left and we filled their spaces. We ended up on the side that has just two benches, each for three people. Angel sat opposite us, and Arron and I sat next to each other. Everbody was touching everybody, it is too cramped not to, but nobody seemed to mind. Behind me there was a window out to the sea, and the skyline of Helsinki beyond. The sky was scorched red and orange with the sunset and in the foreground, naked people hurried down the steps into the sea for a brief dip and back up again. It was beautiful. 

Inside, we were a mass of naked bodies. More people kept coming in and soon there were more people than spaces, even including the spaces to stand. Those on the other side of the sauna squashed up, slippery, sweaty, naked body next to more slippery, sweaty, naked bodies. They managed to make room for a couple more people to sit down. Someone was in charge of the steam and slowly made the sauna hotter, pouring more water on the stones. People went quiet for a while as everyone breathed in the hot, humid air. The temperature gauge read more than 80 degrees C.

Someone asked if everyone in the room had played ‘tetris’ before. Everyone laughed and jokes were made about playing a new game called “Wetris”. At one point I counted at least 24 people, probably more, inside a space designed for maybe 16 at best. We were squashed, but nobody minded. I cannot think of another place in the world where being naked with so many strangers, so close together, is not only acceptable, but embraced and enjoyed, and not at all sexual. 

After a while we left the steam room, very hot and very sweaty, freeing up space for the more people to sit. We skirted round the edge of the building and down the steps to the sea. There was still ice floating on the surface. I jumped in anyway. It is the coldest water I think I have ever been in and after a couple of rushed strokes I climbed back up the steps to find my fleece and down jacket, thankfully still hanging on the peg I left it on. 

Angel, Arron and I huddle on a bench, sheltered behind the only building that isn’t a sauna. We crack open some beers and chat away. I shiver….I am the only person who seemed to think jumping into the sea was a good idea (most people just dip in gently and quickly) and it showed. I don’t regret it, but the next time, I joined everybody else in walking in slowly! I definitely suffered less!

Half a beer later we got undressed again and headed for the second, much smaller sauna. It was designed only for three, so we are lucky and managed to squash together on the seat. We chatted away and a couple more Finns joined us, standing beside us in the small amount of space that there was. They soon introduced themselves and asked us about our trip. 

Everyone was friendly inside the sauna and although we have experienced nothing but friendliness in Finland, Angel tells us that this is something very unique to the sauna. In day to day life, Finns are very reserved and quiet, but inside a sauna, people open up, chat and have fun with strangers. He told us that sauna culture is an important and valuable part of Finnish culture and there is a lot of etiquette that is respected around it. I felt privileged to enjoy it! What a perfect end to our day off! 

The View of Helsinki from Sompasauna

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