While all northern European countries take their sauna traditions seriously, none of them combine pagan tradition, sauna master certification, aromatherapy, beer, and heat like the small Baltic country of Latvia. It's possible to have both a traditional sauna, know as a pirts, and a contemporary sauna experience in the hip Latvian capital city of Riga. Wander along and explore the sauna culture of Latvia.
Experience Balta Pirts in Latvia
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about seventeen pirts in Riga. However, following World War II and 50 years of Soviet occupation, only Balta Pirts survived. Open since 1908, Balta Pirts offers a traditional Latvian sauna experience on Wednesday through Sunday.
In Latvia, a traditional sauna is imbued with the pagan rituals that existed prior to the country’s 13th-century conversion to Christianity. So embedded is the pirts tradition in Latvian history and culture, that over 300 traditional folksongs were written to celebrate its rituals. Historically, a pirts served multiple purposes. It was a separate building from the living accommodations on the farmstead functioning as a bathhouse, a place where women gave birth or took newborns for their first bath and where people were taken before death. The pirts were so important that when families settled new land they often built it before building their home or barn.
A traditional pirt is a wet sauna using water rather than dry heat. Coldwater is gathered in specialized buckets from a nearby pond or the sea or from a faucet and poured over stones heated by a wood fire.
In earlier times, the resulting steam was thought to have magical powers. As with many northern European saunas, a whisk, called a slota in Latvia, is used to gently swat the body and stimulate circulation. Latvian sauna whisks are made from more than just branches used in other European sauna traditions. They’re also tools of healing and aromatherapy. A Latvian slota may include plants such as lilac blossoms to cure inflammation, linden flowers to cleanse the skin, or nettles for additional stimulation. In the summer the slota branches and plants are picked and used while fresh. They’re also collected for winter whisks which are dried and then soaked in water to soften up before using.
In addition to a slota, the traditional Latvian sauna experience uses a salt scrub to cleanse pores, and warmed honey is used as a body oil. It’s a two-three hour experience involving multiple sequences of sitting in the heated room using a slota and then jumping into a cold pool, pond, or snow.
An authentic pirts experience is presided over by a sauna master called a pirtnieks whose training and certification allows them to tailor your experience. They help you decide how long you should remain in the sauna and the best combination of plants and branches for your slota. The pirtnieks enter the sauna with you to administer the brushing and swatting of the slota and the salt and honey treatments.
The helpful English website for Balta Pirts can be found at http://www.baltapirts.lv/. It includes advice for sauna protocol and information about how to schedule the services of a pirtnieks, which must be done in advance.
Enjoying a Beer SPA in Riga, Latvia
Latvia is rightfully proud of its beer tradition. The subject of numerous folksongs and the celebratory drink at festivals, it is such a constant at family gatherings that it’s called “elder brother.” During Soviet times all beer produced in Latvia came from Soviet state-run breweries, but with independence in 1991 and particularly in the last decade, an increasing number of craft brewpubs have sprung up in Riga. Given beer’s importance in Latvian history and culture and in Riga’s hip new food and drink scene, it should not be surprising to find that beer has made its way into Latvia’s traditional sauna culture with a very contemporary twist—the Beer SPA.
Beer’s ingredients—brewing yeast, hops, and malt—as well as its fermentation bi-product of carbon dioxide, have curative properties according to experts. Brewers yeast, hops and malt can restore hormone balance, decrease allergic skin reactions, and restore luster to hair when applied as an external treatment. Hops are also natural oxidants, providing elasticity to the skin, relief to gout, and rheumatism sufferers and it can lower cholesterol. Brewers yeast is a source of water-soluble B vitamins and amino acids.
At Riga’s Beer SPA, customers can have the full beer curative treatment. Located in one of the city’s famous Art deco buildings as part of the more traditional Elizabetes Spa, the Beer SPA isn’t a separate facility but a menu of options with beer and beer ingredients. You begin with a sauna in a contemporary heated wood-paneled sauna room. Instead of salt scrub, you’re given a scrub made from brewers yeast to open your pores. The slota, made from birch branches and plants, is soaked in warm beer instead of water to soften it up before using it to swat your body. You can also opt for a full-body massage using beer-infused oils.
The ultimate beer experience is the beer bath. Once your body has been warmed and scrubbed in the sauna, you enter a separate hot tub room of wooden vats filled with diluted beer. The room also contains a large enclosure filled with sweet-smelling hay, grasses, and herbs covered by a sheet; the aromatherapy part of the traditional pirts experience. Each hot tub is outfitted with a personal beer keg of Latvia’s famous, slow-brewed, craft Valmiermuiza beer, and a mug. You soak. You drink. You rest in the hay bed. And then you repeat.
The Beer SPA claims that bathing in beer treats cellulitis, psoriasis, acne, stress, insomnia, and high blood pressure as well as removing toxins from the skin and body.
More information on the Beer SPA can be found on its English version webpage.
Riga may be better known for its UNESCO World Heritage designation and its streets of stunning Art Deco buildings, but you would be remiss to not sample the Latvia sauna culture when there. Traditional pirts or modern beer spa, both give you a dose of healthy relaxation as well as a glimpse into Latvian culture and history. For more ideas on touring Europe, see these articles from Wander writers.
Sauna Culture of Latvia: Experience Traditional and Modern Saunas in Riga