Exploring thermal bathing cultures: Saunas across the Baltics, Nordics and Central Europe
Jul 17, 2023
The art of thermal bathing stands out as a true testament to devotion to wellness and relaxation in the Baltic and Nordic countries, as well as in central European countries like Germany. Steeped in centuries-old customs, thermal bathing traditions have held an important position in these regions’ cultures and are a big part in the everyday lives of the citizens. They provide a place to cleanse your body, destress, relax and foster social connections. Although many of these cultures have similar sauna related rituals, each of them have their own nuances.
In this blog post we explore the valued bathing traditions of the Finnish Sauna and Estonian Saun, German Aufguss, Swedish Bastu, Russian Banya, Latvian Pirts and Lithuanian Pirtis, with their similarities and differences.
A Finnish sauna by the sea. Image from Narvi.
Sauna holds a special place in the Finnish culture, so much so that it was recognized by UNESCO and added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2020. With an estimated three million saunas for a population of 5.5 million, saunas can be found in most homes; both in city apartments and country cottages. Saunas are deeply intertwined in the culture, serving as a practical place for washing during long winters without running water. They continue to play a significant role in the everyday life by providing a space for relaxation, social connection and rejuvenation in modern-day Finland.
Traditional Finnish saunas are heated by either a wood burning stove or an electric sauna heater. Although wood burning stoves are considered as the authentic and original way to heat up the sauna, electric heaters have become more common in city saunas. The sauna is usually heated to a temperature between +70°C and +100°C, and bathers throw water onto the sauna stones to create “löyly”, which is the steam rising from the heater.
"Löyly” is created by pouring water onto the hot sauna stones.
Hot and cold
One of the important aspects of an authentic Finnish sauna experience is the alteration between hot and cold. Cottage saunas are commonly situated by a lake and bathers take a dip in between the “löylys” to cool off. During wintertime, it is not uncommon to roll in the snow. Nowadays it is easy to take advantage of cold showers or cold plunge pools.
The “vihta”, whisk, is a bundle of birch twigs and leaves used to gently beat the skin during a sauna. This is believed to improve circulation and is a common practice in many of the Nordic and Baltic countries as a part of the sauna ritual.
The smoke sauna
Smoke saunas hold a special place in the Finnish thermal bathing culture. This original type of sauna has a chimney-less stove where firewood is burnt until only embers and coals remain. Once the wood has burned down and most of the smoke has escaped, the door is closed. This creates a gentle heat and a pleasant wood smoke aroma.
A smoke sauna has a pleasant aroma and gentle heat.
The German "Aufguss" showcases an integration of essential oils, ice, water, music and skilful towel work performed by a Sauna Master. The term refers to “infusion” or the act of “downpouring.” This results in an invigorating journey for the body and mind. The Aufguss tradition has gained a lot of traction worldwide in the recent years and continues to attract sauna enthusiasts by offering a unique blend of entertainment and relaxation. UK is taking part in the World Aufguss Championships for the first time in 2023.
A multisensory sauna experience
The use of towels by the Aufguss master is central to the ritual. Through their expertise and skills, the heat and essential oil aromas are distributed throughout the sauna, enhancing the overall experience. The performance usually lasts between 10-15 minutes and provides a multisensory experience for the body and mind. Usually, the heat builds up towards the end of the performance. The carefully curated blend of essential oils combined with the heat and rhythmic movements of the towels choreographed by the sauna master is performed in large public saunas in Germany and around the world.
Sauna oils are an essential part of the Aufguss ritual.
Beyond the physical and relaxing benefits of the heat of the sauna and natural oils, the Aufguss ritual has a social aspect. Sauna-goers come together to participate in the performance for a shared well-being experience. As with all the long-standing thermal bathing traditions across the world, the Aufguss ritual reinforces a sense of community.
Derived from the words “bad” (bath) and “stuga” (cabin), the Swedish bastu, or sweat lodge, has its roots in centuries old Scandinavian bathing practices, where communities would gather for communal cleansing and relaxation.
Nowadays bastus have evolved into individual builds dedicated to the enjoyment of the health benefits of heat and steam.
The alteration between hot and cold is a key component in the Swedish bastu experience. It is common to sit in the heat of +70°C up to +90°C for 15-20 minutes and dip into a lake to cool off, regardless of the time of the year. Sweat, dip and repeat. Although Swedes have traditionally enjoyed bastu in the nude, it is okay to wrap yourself around a towel or wear a swimsuit, especially when visiting a public bastu.
Traditional cabin-like bastus can be found in rural areas of Sweden.
Modern adaptations and social connection
For centuries, bastu has served as a place to unwind, cleanse the body and foster social connections. The modern builds blend functionality and aesthetics. Traditional bastus are located by the lake and built of natural materials like wood from inside out, with a rustic and minimalist design. Large windows are common to allow natural light, reinforcing a connection with the surrounding nature. A wood burning stove is at the centre of a traditional bastu.
In urban areas of Sweden, modern adaptations can be found in public saunas and communal bastus. Public bastus offer opportunities for anyone to access the relaxing effects of the practice without the need to own one. They also promote wellness and social interaction is busy cities. Bastu is very similar to the sauna and saun, but Swedes prefer their thermal bathing slightly drier than the Finns and the Estonians.
Dipping into a lake to cool off creates an invigorating feeling after visiting a bastu.
Similarly to the Finnish Sauna, the Estonian Saun is deeply ingrained in the country's culture. Saunas have long been an integral part of the daily lives of Estonians by providing a place to aid physical well-being, socialize and relax in. Whether enjoyed outdoors or indoors, equipped with an electric heater or a wood burning sauna stove, saun remains cherished and offers a blend of tradition and innovation.
Indoors and outdoors: Saun in any setting
Modern indoor sauns are commonly found in Estonian city homes, providing a private and cozy retreat for individuals and families. Some of the modern, stylish and innovative sauna heaters are in fact designed and manufactured in Estonia. One of the recognized brands being HUUM.
The electric heater technology has improved over time, becoming more energy-efficient and user-friendly. On the other hand, cabin-like outdoor saunas are popular in rural areas, where Estonians can experience a more traditional, authentic saun experience in the heat of a wood burning sauna stove by the lake. The crackling sound of the wood adds a touch of calm and creates a rustic atmosphere to relax in.
As with many thermal bathing traditions, connection to nature is important in the saun experience.
The perfect temperature
Estonian sauns are commonly at a +75-90°C range. One of the defining aspects of the Estonian saun tradition is the use of steam “leil” that rises from the hot stones in the heater when water is poured over them. This creates a pleasant humid atmosphere, intensifies the heat and enhances the overall experience.
Estonian heaters are recognised for their style and innovation. Image from HUUM.
Innovation from Estonia
Estonia has become a hub for sauna innovation, with brands like HUUM leading the way. HUUM has gained recognition and awards for its modern and stylish sauna heaters inspired by nature. The Estonian sauna industry’s commitment to continuous improvement and innovation ensures that sauna enthusiasts can embrace the tradition whilst enjoying the benefits of cutting-edge technology.
The traditional Lithuanian Pirtis has many similarities to the Estonian Saun and Finnish Sauna, and is as important for the Lithuanians as a part of the culture. The Lithuanian sauna tradition focuses on creating a connection with nature. Pirtis are unique in the use of various medicinal herbs.
Whisks and herbal extracts
Aromatherapy and the use of natural substances is a central aspect when visiting a pirtis. Whisks, or “vanta” in Lithuanian, often made of birch or oak, is used promote circulation and relax the senses. The use of the whisk is combined with washing, massaging and exfoliating the body with other natural products such as salts, honey, clay, oils and herbal extracts.
Whisks are important in a traditional pirtis.
A traditional pirtis has a wood burning sauna stove and the temperature is kept slightly lower in comparison to many other Baltic and Nordic countries at around +60°C, which creates a humid environment and gentle heat. Water is poured onto the heater’s stones to create a feeling of a slightly more intense, yet pleasant steam. The sauna ritual is enjoyed without rushing and can take 3-4 hours.
It is common for the bathers to go into the pirtis four times for the steam ritual, body scrub and whisking before closing the bathing session. Pirtis visitors enjoy herbal teas when cooling down. As in Finland, smoke saunas can also be found in Lithuania.
For centuries, the Latvian pirts, or bathhouse, has been held in high regard in its significance as a place of cleansing and relaxation. The pirts is referred to in Latvian folksongs and poems, showcasing its enduring cultural presence. Visiting the pirts involves combining heat and steam with plants and natural oils to reinforce the connection to nature.
Wild plants and natural oils
Although similar in construction and the main elements of a wood burning sauna heater when compared to other Baltic, Nordic and Central European saunas, a distinct feature of the Latvian pirts is the emphasis on using wild plants and natural oils when bathing. These are believed to enhance circulation and release tension from muscle aches. Various natural substances such as birch, juniper and chamomile are used for their soothing properties. Whisks are used to gently beat the skin. Natural oils, such as lavender and eucalyptus can be added to the water thrown onto the stones to create a pleasant aroma.
Whisks, natural oils and sauna hats can be found in a Latvian pirts.
An experience to be enjoyed
Like the other aforementioned sauna and thermal bathing traditions, the Latvian pirts is best enjoyed over an extended period of time. The ritual is meant to be savoured, with bathers typically spending a couple of hours alternating between hot and cold. The unhurried approach allows you to fully immerse yourself in the relaxing and health promoting effects.
The Russian Banya is heated by a large stove. It has been an integral part of the culture for centuries. With its roots deeply intertwined in folklore and tradition, the banya serves as a place for relaxation, healing and social connection. Similar to most of the Baltic and Nordic thermal bathing traditions, the banya utilises water poured onto the stove to create steam. The steam room, known as the “parilka,” is at the heart of the bathing experience.
A banya is traditionally heated with a wood burning stove.
A traditional banya consists of three areas: the “parilka” (steam room), the “moyka” (washroom) and the “predbannik” (relaxation room). These rooms comprise a holistic bathing experience. The predbannik offers an area to relax and socialize in, the moyka is for washing and cooling off and the parilka is where the intense heat and steam is experienced.
A banya is often a spacious, wooden, cabin-like building with a similar look to traditional Finnish and Estonian saunas and sauns. As mentioned before, the overall structure consists of an entrance room, a washroom and the steam room. The stove has a fire box, which is fed from the entrance room, a large stone compartment with a hole to throw water into and a water tank at the top. The top of the water tank is usually kept shut. A more intense heat is created by pouring water onto the stones in a temperature of approximately +90°C.
Veniks, cooling off and refreshments
“Veniks” are whisks made of birch, oak or eucalyptus. They are used to aid circulation and are important when visiting a banya. After the intense heat of the banya, it is customary to cool off by plunging into a cold pool, rolling in snow or simply going outside in the fresh air. Traditional refreshments are tea and beer.
Tea can be served as a refreshment after a relaxing banya experience.
Although these thermal bathing and sauna traditions have many similarities to each other, they all entail their own characteristics, making each experience unique. If you are interested in creating your own ideal sauna experience at your home, contact us and we can help you with your dream project.