Nē, nē, nē, duša ir pirmais! These were the instructions given by a Latvian grandmother in her birthday suit after I entered the bath complex and reached for the steam room door. Never mind that I was already clean. The Latvian sauna ritual always begins with a shower. Perhaps amused by my halting Latvian and my eagerness to learn her culture, this grandmother – with the trim and powerful body of a former Olympic swimmer – took me under her wing and literally walked me through the many steps of the sauna ritual.
If you can’t find a friendly local to adopt you for the day, follow these steps to look like a pro!
Have the Right Supplies
I showed up to the sauna empty handed and had to buy or rent the necessary accouterments (for a minimal cost). You will want to have: plastic sandals, towels, a washcloth, soap, a mud mask and/or exfoliating scrub, a dried birch branch, and a wood or plastic board to sit on. Many of the women present during my visit brought along their own buckets, and two had pumice stones for their feet which I thought was genius.
It is critical that you drink plenty of water before, during, and after your sauna experience. I also recommend eating a light meal before you go. Both spas I’ve been to have had pitchers of fresh drinking water and apples on hand.
Get Comfortable with Nudity
This goes for your own as well as that of others. I brought a bathing suit with me but quickly realized that it would look strange to wear it when everyone else was without. I kept my towel wrapped tight around me until it became sopping wet and then gave up on any attempt at modesty. It was actually quite liberating! Note that some saunas have separate bathing areas for women and men while others are co-ed.
Watch and Learn
Assuming a fellow bather doesn’t show you what to do, simply observe the other sauna patrons and follow their lead. Try not to be too creepy about it. Remember: you’re all naked.
Shower, Steam, Repeat
Begin your sauna ritual with a shower, making sure to work up a good soapy lather. Rinse off thoroughly, then enter the steam room. The temperature here is moderate and more gentle. Sit and relax for a while, then cool off with a shower. Repeat this process several times.
Once your skin is warm, it’s time to exfoliate. My Latvian granny very cleverly eschewed expensive exfoliating cream in favor of used coffee grounds, and was happy to share her stash. In fact, I was made to brace myself against the wall while Granny vigorously rubbed the grounds into my back. She claimed it was for enerģija. I did feel very much alive afterwards.
Another option is to give yourself a mud mask. But don’t just focus on your face – cover yourself from head to toe! Let the mud dry for a few minutes before rinsing it off to really deep-clean your pores. Head back into the steam room to warm up afterwards.
Sweat It Out
When you are acclimated to the temperature – and well hydrated – it’s time to enter the main sauna. The atmosphere here will be extremely hot and dry thanks to a well-stoked fire. Take your plastic board to sit on and protect your sensitive bits. There are usually multiple levels of wooden benches, with the heat intensifying as it rises. Diehard sauna aficionados will recline on the top benches and wear woolen caps to trap even more heat in their body. I politely declined one offered to me and stuck to the lower bench, as I’m a wimp. It’s important to know your limits.
Birch Branch Massage
Next comes the most interesting part of the sauna ritual. Soak your dried birch branch in warm water until the leaves are rehydrated, then take it with you into the main wood sauna. If you’re lucky, one of your Latvian friends will take your branch and work you over with it. Granny had me lay down on one of the benches while she “massaged” my back, legs and feet with the branch. This apparently loosens muscles while providing aromatherapy benefits and fanning the heat in the room. Win-win-win!
Take a Refreshing Dip
It doesn’t get more exhilarating than jumping naked into a pool of cold water! After several rounds of extreme heat, your body (and mind) will be craving relief. Take a swim in the pool, if there is one, or dump a bucket of icy water over your head. This was Granny’s method of choice, which she claimed was good for your health. Veselīgs!
Even if the sauna has a bath attendant, it’s still polite to clean up after yourself. Make sure your coffee grounds and mud are washed down the drain, pick up your errant birch leaves, and throw away your empty water cup. If you’ve rented any items, return them to the front desk and put your wet towel in the bin. Your neighbors will thank you.
Replenish Those Calories
You will sweat a lot throughout the Latvian sauna ritual and will need to feed your body afterwards. I was absolutely ravenous! Potato pancakes and a beer are just what the doctor ordered.
Latvian saunas, or pirts, have been an important part of the culture for centuries. Traditionally the warmest and most sanitary area of the home, the sauna doubled as a smokehouse for meat and a birthing room for Latvian babies and mothers. Can you imagine entering the world in a haze of wood smoke and cured sausage? Those were some lucky babies!
Most Latvians will tell you that real saunas only exist in the countryside, ideally situated next to a pond or river for jumping into afterwards. But city dwellers can enjoy saunas, too. I recommend Balta Pirts in Riga, which has been helping locals relax since the early 1900s. A one-day pass costs between €13-€15 and you can stay as long as you like.
Have you ever experienced a traditional sauna? Do you dare?