Terviseks. In the European country of Estonia, it means “to your health” and Estonians take their health seriously. Enjoying Estonian spa traditions is an important part of understanding Estonian culture. That experience can range from the use of medicinal plants to an 800-year-old sauna tradition and a centuries’ old practice of using mud from the Baltic Sea to help arthritis.
UNESCO Celebrates Estonian Spa Traditions
In Vorromaa, in the rural, southeast corner of Estonia, a sauna is so embedded with tradition that it’s been named to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This international designation honors practices and rituals passed from one generation to the next.
Commonly called a smoke sauna, precise skills are needed to construct the sauna building, identify the wood, make the fire to heat the sauna and create the whisks that are used to gently flail the body to stimulate circulation. A Voromaa sauna has no chimney, so once the wood fire heats, the door is opened to release the smoke before a guest enters.
Saunas in Vorromaa are a form of hospitality, happening Saturdays or before a festival. They may also be a family event, used to relax and cleanse. And there are expectations once you go inside: a sauna experience should last two to three hours out of respect for the person who spent hours stoking the fire; and avoid discussing anything controversial or complicated because it interferes with relaxation and cleansing.
Visit the Tallin Spas to Explore Estonian Spa Traditions
If a trip to the rural corner of the country isn’t possible, but you want to sample an authentic Estonian sauna and spa, you can experience the spas in the capital city of Tallin. The city has a variety of swank modern facilities, but I wanted authenticity. I sought out two Estonian spas with historical significance.
Pirita Spa Hotel in Tallin
Pirita Spa Hotel is located on the Baltic Sea just 10 minutes from Tallin by taxi. The hotel was built as the athletes’ venue when Estonia played host to the sailing competition in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Estonia, occupied by the Soviet Union in 1980, had the ideal conditions for a sailing regatta. The hotel and the Olympic Yachting Center next door remain as vestiges of both the Olympics and Estonia’s 50 year history as a Soviet republic.
While you can take advantage of the spa’s extensive services as a day spa, staying at least one night in the hotel rooms formerly used by Olympic athletes enhances the experience.
The building was constructed to look like a catamaran when viewed from its front door exterior and has won architectural awards including a designation on The National Heritage Board list. Located on the Baltic Sea and surrounded by forests, walking trails and an outdoor Nordic exercise course, it provides plenty of outdoor opportunities to enjoy the Estonian coastline and forests.
Inside the large hotel has a 25 meter swimming pool, exercise rooms plus Finnish and steam saunas, all built as part of its original purpose—to host the athletes. All services are free to hotel guests.
But I was there to try out Pirita's spa offerings. And what offerings they were. Standing at the hotel’s second floor spa lobby, I counted 149 possibilities on the spa menu, all of them significantly less expensive than you would find in the US or most EU countries. Like many traditional European spas, Pirita Spa offers wellness, medispa and beauty treatments. You can have a medical consultation, get your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked and even get an electro cardiogram, all by a medical professional on staff. You can also get your hair shampooed, cut, colored, styled, highlighted and blown dry in the beauty shop.
Reviewing the massage and body treatment possibilities, I could have had the Lux Grape Wine Wrap with Wine Bath and Chocolate Massage or the more curiously titled “No More Cellulite” and “Slim Worship” treatments. Instead, I opted for the more familiar sounding Grapefruit Pearl Bath, the Honey Massage and a manicure and pedicure.
The first thing to know about Estonian spas is that you need to be comfortable with being naked or wearing the paper tangas you’re provided—panties and a hair net available in men’s and women’s sizes. Pirita Spa had separate men’s and women’s facilities, individual treatment rooms and a thick robe and slippers to walk between rooms, but that’s not always the case. My four treatments, all done by the same spa employee, were very relaxing, extremely professional and we overcame our language differences enough to chat about the procedures.
Dinner that night in the hotel’s top floor restaurant gave me a wide window view of the sunset over the Baltic Sea and the ferries that ply the water between Tallin and Helsinki, Finland.
Kalma Sauna in Tallin
Kalma Sauna is the oldest and most conventional public sauna in Tallin. It is located just outside Tallin’s historic Old Town in the newly hip and bohemian section called Kalamaja. Kalma Sauna is a bath house and sauna in the Finnish tradition whose influence is seen in most traditional Estonian saunas.
Built in 1928 by famed architect Aleksander Vladovski, the sauna is a concrete building with an Art Deco façade located on a residential street. It’s not fancy but functional. You need to bring your own equipment and amenities with you—shampoo, rubber shoes and towel.
An essential part of a Baltic sauna experience involves a whisk, usually made of birch twigs, called a vihta or vasta. Locals typically bring their birch whisks with them to a sauna. Entering the sparse lobby, I paid 11€ entry to the spa and purchased a whisk for an additional 2€.
The sauna has separate men’s and women’s sides; the men’s sauna is heated with wood and the women’s uses a modern electric heater. Each side has an exterior room with lockers and an attendant, a second room with benches, faucets, showers and a cold pool. Beyond that is the sauna.
As with the spa, saunas are experienced naked. Once stripped down to everything but your rubber shoes, you take your whisk into the next room and using the large plastic bowls provided, soak it in hot water to soften it up for twenty minutes while you shower and enter the sauna with your towel to open your pores. Some Estonian women wear stocking caps in a sauna, a common practice to increase body heat and sweating. Because Estonians use saunas frequently, they run them very hot – sometimes as high as 110 degrees Centigrade (that’s 230 degrees Fahrenheit) so it’s advisable to begin by sitting on the lowest bench until you get used to the heat.
Kalma Sauna has showers and a cold water pool to cool off in after you exit the sauna. For round two, you bring your now softened whisk in with you and once you start sweating use it to gently swat your back, torso, legs and arms. The purpose of the whisking is to increase circulation and eliminate toxins. The whisk has an aromatherapy function as well. When you need a break, exit the sauna, put your now dry whisk back in the bowl to soften it and use the shower and cold pool to cool off. Then repeat.
Leaving Kalma Sauna, the attendant in the front lobby offered me a beer and that’s when I noticed the shelves of beer for sale. Beer and saunas go together in many Baltic saunas as beer is believed to have healing properties. It is part of the social function of a sauna. There’s some debate about its contribution to the primary purpose of a sauna—to cleanse toxins—but I bought a beer. After all, I wanted an authentic Estonian spa experience. Although I’m not necessarily fond of beer, I have to say—it was the best tasting, most refreshing beer I’ve ever had.