Once upon a time, waking up with smeared mascara and hair reeking of smoke was the sign of a wild night out. Now, it’s my souvenir of something a lot more wholesome, though just as sweaty: a visit to Tallinn’s new public smoke sauna.
Tucked away in a garden in the leafy forest suburb of Nõmme, lit by twinkly lights and a gently crackling fire pit, the homespun Rangi sauna is a world away from the panpipes and towelling slippers of the generic spa experience. Instead of warm prosecco, we’re drinking kali, the traditional treacly beer brewed with Estonian black bread. Instead of scones and curling sandwiches, there’s a simmering pot of hapukapsasupp, sauerkraut soup with potatoes and salted pork. And instead of a massage and mani-pedi, I have been vigorously hit all over with a sauna whisk made from eucalyptus leaves. Nobody has tried to upsell me body lotion.
“It’s a real shame to think of saunas as a luxury thing,” say my hosts, co-owners Anni Oviir and Adam Rang, who are so passionate about saunas that they even launched their start-up inside one. “It should actually be the opposite.”
Often overshadowed by its more famous Finnish cousin, Estonian sauna culture tends towards the rustic and is as much about socialising as it is about beautifying. Here, saunas are not silent retreats – they’re places of gossip and bonding, even of fabled business deals. After all, it’s not only your pores that open up in the heat. “Family, friends, colleagues – it’s how you relax and get to know each other,” explains Adam, who is from the UK, but spent childhood summers visiting Estonia to trace his grandfather’s family. “One of the things we love about saunas is the idea that, inside one, everybody’s equal.”
Though some can feel less equal than others. “My first public sauna experience in Estonia was walking in and not having any clue what to do. ‘Do I take my clothes off… here?’ It was really confusing,” says Adam. Staying at a hostel, his fellow backpackers had all gone to a firing range – “to pose with Soviet weapons for their Instagrams” – while Adam decided to seek out a more peaceful taste of Estonian life. Several hours later, he realised he’d have felt more relaxed among the weapons.