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At Europe’s sauna marathon, schvitzing is a sport

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OTEPÄÄ, Estonia — A sharp hiss filled the room as a competitor ladled four cups of water over a hot pile of black sauna rocks. Steam spiraled above our heads. Calm set in — briefly. Three minutes were on the clock.

In this small wooden sauna, a team of 14 semi-clad people in costumes squeezed in, including two in wigs and four Zorros. At exactly three minutes, everyone tumbled out, found their robes, and set out in the snow searching for the next stop in the winter race.

At the 13th annual European Sauna Marathon teams navigated ice and snow to clock three minutes in 18 different saunas over one afternoon. At this year’s competition in early February, I joined a team to complete the circuit by stripping down to our bathing suits, sweating through the steam and plunging into ice holes at record speeds.

One of the competition categories is best sauna experience; participants vote by heat, ambiance, music, snacks and novelty. One option was a retrofitted tram car vibrating with a techno beat and complemented by a fire pit and hot tub out front. This year’s winner was a sauna in the sky, equipped with a wood-burning stove lifted 50 feet in the air by an industrial crane while each team sweated inside.

When the sauna hit the ground, a charming Estonian cowboy handed out ice-cold root beers as a goodbye.

Most of the saunas are run by local enthusiasts, friendly families and businesses giving out pre-sauna beers and grilled meats — or vodka and pickles. One was a hobbit house with a snowy roof slide that ended in an ice hole. Another was being shipped to Ukraine after — as part of the relief effort.

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Zany — but sauna-friendly — costumes are critical. Picture a lot of spandex, disco ball helmets and capes. The U.S. military team was represented with camo green shirts and matching face paint. Many teams wore traditional felted sauna hats.

Each team is given a map and an electronic tracker to keep everyone honest on their three minutes. Some locations are 45 kilometers away in Tõrva, so part of the race is orienteering. Our team navigator and van driver use the satnav crossed against phone directions as we hurry through the snow-covered forests. Estonia is more than 50 percent forest.

Searching for the next stop, we turned down a lane to see a man in a swimsuit and aqua shoes standing in the snow. We parked near a little brown trailer with steam billowing out the top on the edge of a frozen lake surrounded by covered evergreens. Cross-country skiers whizzed past.

At the end of the pier, marathoners were lowering themselves into a hole cut out of 8-inch thick ice.

The feeling is less marathon and more festival — celebrating all things sauna. A team of Finns traveled from Helsinki on the ferry. When asked why they traveled abroad for the marathon, a Finnish competitor said, “we’ve heard about this for years, so of course we had to come and see it ourselves. We’re not here to win today. We’re just having fun.”

The reigning Estonian champions confirmed that they have a strategy to complete the whole circuit first.

“We’re strict on the three-minute timing, but the competition is getting stiffer,” said Estonian team member Villu Uus.

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This year registration sold out within two hours. The entries are capped at 200 teams. But organizers say they hold 40 places for teams from abroad to experience Estonian sauna culture.

Even the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, George P. Kent, was competing as a joint team with his Norwegian counterpart. They were enthusiastically costumed in horned felted sauna hats embroidered with both countries’ flags and donned regal blue robes in between steams. They made it to all the saunas, but Kent’s preference was the beekeepers’ sauna with an ice hole.

“They were handing out their own honey,” Kent said. “I have bees. I keep a hive in Tallinn.”

Along with most Estonians, he has a sauna in his home and uses it a couple times a week.

National culture of sauna

Finland has exported the sauna lifestyle, but just across the Baltic Sea, the heritage in Estonia is just as mighty. And the range is wide: igloo, electric, raft, infrared, wood-burning, and traditional smoke saunas, to name a few.

Originating as a bathing ritual, the sauna has taken many roles in the culture. Most immediately, in the northern climate, it kept the population alive. Beyond warmth, it was a sterile environment for giving birth or tending to the sick. A wedding or family milestone would be celebrated with a sauna, toddlers crawling around at the bottom while parents and grandparents take the higher, hotter benches.

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Estonians have intuitively understood the health and wellness benefits long before the now-established medical evidence base. You don’t have to take more than one sauna to know that it calms the outside noise. It gives people peace. And seeing all these different aged bodies normalizes nakedness.

To experience a traditional smoke sauna that predates electricity, you need to go to Southern Estonia close to the Russian border. In an effort led by Eda Veeroja, UNESCO has protected the smoke sauna tradition as intangible heritage.

Veeroja preserves local knowledge including how to make and use birch whisks known as viht. Now in her 60s, her family farm was returned in 1994 after the Soviets left. Since then, she’s transformed it into an authentic guided smoke sauna experience. She and her husband prepare smoke saunas over eight hours. There’s no chimney, so the smoke is trapped and the heat will last for hours. This was the traditional approach used for heat, sterilization and even smoking meat.

To get a taste of the tradition without traveling to the Baltic, watch the art house film “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” a recent winner at Sundance and the European Film Awards. Estonian director Anna Hints took seven years to make the film, inspired by growing up in the smoke sauna tradition where she watched women sharing their thoughts and making peace with their lives and bodies.

To explore these Estonian sauna experiences, Tartu is a good southern base.

It’s centered around Tartu University, founded by Swedes in 1632, a time before the Russian occupation when the quality of life for Estonian peasantry declined rapidly. Like all towns in Estonia, Tartu is clean and digitally forward. Estonia’s population of over 1.3 million have the option to vote online, for example.

As a European Capital of Culture for 2024, there is a year-long program exploring the “Art of Survival” through heritage, cuisine and music. That includes a May event called Kissing Tartu, which will be an unprecedented mass joint kiss. In September, the festival Pühajärve Beach Gourmet will spotlight regional chefs working with local fish, game and foraged mushrooms.

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While in Tartu, dig into history at the Estonian National Museum and Aparaaditehas, a former Soviet refrigerator and secret submarine factory turned cultural center. Go to the opera at the historic Theatre Vanermuine (“Turandot” runs from April, tickets start around $45).

Lunch at Werner, a classic retro cafe, is popular with locals. For fine dining, book at Michelin-recommended Hõlm. If you like antique Baltic charm, stay at the Antonius Hotel in the city center, renovated and fitted throughout with historic pieces, including a type of ceiling-high ceramic fireplace built in St. Petersburg and sold across the former Soviet Union.

Lisa Lucas is a travel and lifestyle writer based in London. Follow her on X @Lisa_A_Lucas and Instagram @lisa_a_lucas.



Source: Washington Post

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