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Full Steam Ahead

by Sarah Shuckburgh

A visit to the local sauna is part of everyday life in Helsinki. Sarah Shuckburgh flings off her clothes and – eventually – her inhibitions.

Snow began to fall as my daughter Hannah and I walked north through a park of leafless trees, over a frozen river, and on through deserted streets lined with featureless blocks of flats. Suddenly, turning a corner, we came upon a dozen naked men sitting on a low wall, skimpy towels wrapped around their waists, and bottles of beer in their fists. Their puce bodies gleamed with sweat, despite the snow. The men greeted us enthusiastically, trying out their English. “Saunas in England are sexy, but in Finland nudity is very natural. Here in Helsinki we visit saunas after work, like you go to your pubs, to relax and talk. The sauna cures colds and all other illnesses.”

Politely declining invitations to sit on the wall for a longer chat, we bought tickets at a kiosk, glimpsing through a half-open door a steamy room of stark naked men. An elderly woman with blond plaits escorted us upstairs to the women’s parlour – little changed since the Kotiharjun Sauna opened in 1928. We stowed our clothes in vintage lockers, showered in a cavernous washroom, and then creaked open the door to the sauna. Lit by two dim bulbs, with wintry light filtering through a cracked and cobwebbed window, the room was full of steam. Hannah and I could just discern two nude women perched on a slatted step near the smoke-stained wooden ceiling. Logs four feet long were stacked beside a vast furnace. As we hovered nervously, still clutching damp towels to cover our nakedness, one of the women clambered down and yanked a huge tap by the stove, causing a blast of scalding steam to belch from the blackened pipes above. Hannah and I crouched on a low step until we summoned the courage to shed our towels and venture higher, into the stifling heat.

Whenever we began to melt, we retreated for icy showers and swigs of pink cloudberry lemonade (me) or grapefruit gin (Hannah). In the chilly washroom, the elderly attendant with blond plaits offered me a body scrub, and I lay shivering on a plastic tablecloth while she soaped and pummelled, and sluiced me with a hose. As a final flourish, she sat me on a plastic chair and tipped a bucket of tepid water over my head.

Downstairs, we found another row of pink, naked men drinking beer in the snow. The kiosk attendant handed us 12 litres of beer – a present from the customers we had met on our arrival. Not wanting to look ungrateful, we lugged the clanking bottles back to our hotel, slithering through the icy streets.

That evening, feeling scrubbed smooth and shiny, we dined on seafood at Havis, a chic quayside restaurant. Waitresses wore white and then black gloves, and the wine glasses grew larger and larger with each course. Outside, the lights of the harbour twinkled through the cold night air.

The next morning, we set off through a snowstorm to Kiasma, Helsinki’s museum of modern art. We found the strange building more interesting than the art it displayed – the white concrete interior swirled like the snow outside, with sweeping internal walkways and spiral staircases leading to melancholic, sparsely-hung galleries.

We preferred the gothic National Museum of Finland across the road – the Kansallismuseo has eclectic displays illustrating centuries of Finnish culture. Elks were clearly very useful in prehistoric times – archaeological exhibits included antler tools, cloven-hoof cups and rattles, bags fashioned from elk ears, and string made from elk tendons. Mannequins modelled elk outfits that might have been worn 1000 years ago. Just as fascinating were film clips of 20th century Finland – with reindeer sleds, soldiers on skis, Sibelius and his Finlandia symphony, swims in icy lakes, winning Miss Universe in 1952 and joining the European Union in 1994.

A five-minute walk through a blizzard brought us to the extraordinary Temppeliaukio Church, hacked out of a rocky mound in 1969. Inside, the circular walls of russet-pink and grey rock are topped with matching rubble, forming an uneven, undulating cornice, but the effect is peaceful, light and airy, not dark or sepulchral. As we sat on pink cushions in the simple wooden pews, listening to Bach resonating from copper organ pipes, wintry light poured through the snowy skylights surrounding the domed copper roof.

We found our way to the Restaurant Konstan Möljä just as it opened, at 2pm. Here, for 17 euros, we were invited to eat as much as we liked from a huge selection of Finnish dishes cooked that morning by the motherly proprietress. We started with karjalan piirakka (a rice-filled savoury pie), hot and cold smoked salmon with wild mushroom sauce, beetroot, pumpkin, tiny fried fish, radish butter, marinated herring with mustard sauce, and shrimp soup. These were just starters – next we tucked into slices of bull meat in pepper sauce, shredded reindeer stew, vegetable ratatouille and three types of potatoes. Outside, snow shrouded parked cars and piled up on the window sill, but inside, we were cosy and warm.

Now for our daily sauna. This time we ventured no further than the 8th floor of the luxurious Hotel Kamp, where we were staying. We had it to ourselves, but just in case, we wore our swimsuits in the starry-roofed Turkish bath, the ‘grotto’ steam-room and the tongue-and-groove electric sauna.

We wanted to try more Finnish food, and booked a table at the chic Elite restaurant, where – still full of lunch - we rashly chose dishes designed to fill ravenous reindeer herders. Hannah struggled with inch-thick blinis and a mountain of vorschmack, while I opted for pyttipannua – a huge plate of stodge and grease, dotted with fatty bacon.

On Sunday morning, after a light breakfast of gherkins, salmon and rye bread, we wrapped up warmly and set off to join weekend promenaders in Kaivopuisto Park at the southern tip of the Helsinki peninsula. The weather was spectacular – bright sunshine, clear blue sky, every twig covered with a fresh layer of snow, and, stretching away to the horizon, the dazzlingly white frozen expanse of the Gulf of Finland. It was so cold that you could see your breath, but everyone was equipped for this climate – toddlers sported padded jumpsuits and hats with earflaps; older people walked with ski-poles and fur boots. At the waterside Café Ursula, we sat at a south-facing table, warmed by the winter sun, and by cups of steaming hot chocolate and cinnamon-flavoured ‘pulla’ pastries.

Next, we visited the Cygnaeus Gallery, in a quiet residential area of clapboard houses and embassies. Cygnaeus, professor, politician and leader of the nationalist movement, built a summer villa in 1870 to display his collection of Finnish paintings. A year after his death, in 1882, the house opened as Finland’s first art gallery, with paintings by every important 19th century Finnish artist – a good number of them women.

Almost next door is the Mannerheim Museum, a pretty clapboard house where Finland’s most famous statesman lived until his death in 1951. Donning plastic bags over our shoes, we joined a lengthy guided tour which left us with an unsympathetic opinion of Mannerheim as a man – deserted by wife and daughters, he lived alone, surrounded by tiger skins, antlers and other hunting trophies, sleeping on a camp-bed in a Spartan bedroom, and taking cold baths every day.

We cheered up over lunch at the nearby Seahorse, a large smoky 1930s restaurant, where we tucked into tender fillets of reindeer served with lingonberries, followed by cheesecake and coffee. Feeling thoroughly restored, we made for the Ateneum Museum, a stately building with a carefully curated collection of Finnish art. I loved the restrained and unemotional 19th century paintings – bleak landscapes with huge white skies, whirling snow, and melancholy forests. Hannah preferred the more challenging abstract works – 1950’s concrete, non-representational paintings, and experimental informalist works from the 1960s. One small gallery was hung with French impressionists – the passion, heat and vibrant colour startling after the cool Finnish restraint.

Now it was time for our last sauna. The Yrjönkadun Uimahalli is an elegant Art Deco building, recently restored, with swimming pool, arched galleries and a choice of electric or wood saunas. We chose the first-floor 11-euro option, with traditional wood sauna, our own curtained cubicle with two iron beds, and room service. Newly confident, we stripped off and climbed to the highest shelf in the sauna, splashing our bodies expertly with ladles. When we felt dizzy, we swam some naked laps of the pool, and ordered huge glasses of refreshing talon sima, traditional lemonade with floating berries. Then we dozed on our beds, lulled by the rhythmic splashing of nude swimmers in the pool below.

First published by the Telegraph.

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