Tips for Visiting a Traditional Latvian Sauna

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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!

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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.

Hydrate!

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.

Balta Pirts Riga

Image source: Balta Pirts

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.

Scrub-a-dub-dub

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.

Balta Pirts Riga

Image source: Balta Pirts

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

Image source: China Sauna

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!

Tidy Up

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.

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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.

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Latvian sauna ritual

Have you ever experienced a traditional sauna? Do you dare?

Relaxing by the Baltic Sea in Jurmala

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The weather in Latvia this July has been extraordinary, with balmy temperatures more in line with the Mediterranean than Northern Europe. I’ve even heard that we’ve experienced a record-breaking number of days over 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit). I thought it was supposed be cold in this country!

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the Baltic Sea was the place to be, specifically, the coastal resort of Jurmala. Only 25 minutes by train from Riga, it’s easy to see why the locals flock there in droves. 32 kilometers of pristine white sand connects the 14 townships that constitute Jurmala and which only just peek through the dense pine forest. Once the go-to holiday spot for the Soviet elite of yesteryear, the peaceful beachfront today remains surprisingly undeveloped.

Jurmala

Photo source: Baltic Beach Hotel

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For my first day trip to the beach, I took the train from Riga’s Central Station to Majori township in central Jurmala (€1.40 each way). The walk from the station to the seaside took all of 10 minutes, and that included plenty of stops for photo-taking. I skipped the touristy main drag, which connects Majori with the other major township, Dzintari, and focused instead on the charming wooden art nouveau cottages for which the area is known. On my next visit, I’ll definitely allow more time to wander the side streets and admire the unique architecture!

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Majori township, “downtown” Jurmala

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The dominant feature of the Jurmala skyline is the impressive Baltic Beach Hotel, which looks a bit like a cruise ship that’s washed ashore. Situated literally on top of the dunes, I imagine the guest room views are hard to beat. Lounge chairs, umbrellas and private cabanas are available for anyone to rent, though I was told that on busy days hotel guests take priority over the general public.

I enjoyed a leisurely lunch under the neon-green umbrellas of the Beach Bar & Grill, which was surprisingly reasonably priced given the prime location. Patrons also had free access to the large lounge pillows tossed casually in the sand.

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No trip to Jurmala would be complete without a visit to the spa, the feature for which the town is most famous. So after lunch, I headed inside to the Baltic Beach Hotel Spa Center, one of the largest in Northern Europe. The spa is spread across three floors and offers more than 400 different treatments that promote health and relaxation.

In need of a little pampering after my big international move, I opted for the Hot Chocolate Cosmetic Body Wrap. This entailed being slathered from head to toe in a warm chocolate mixture, wrapped in plastic sheets and covered with towels, and left to marinate for 30 minutes while I daydreamed about dessert. The treatment, said to moisturize and rejuvenate the skin, cost €29 and included access to the Banja bath complex.

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I was given blue hospital booties to wear over my shoes into the changing room.

The rustically-styled complex included two saunas, or pirts, of differing degrees of heat. One steam room was so sweltering I could only stay inside for a few minutes. The other, which recreated the feeling of jogging in Thailand in April, was more tolerable. Still, an attendant did insist I don a wool hat to generate more body heat. The humid air reportedly increases circulation and lung function, purifies the body and clears out your pores.

After sitting in the sauna for as long as you can, you then need to cool your body down. This can be done sitting in the spa’s “ice room,” which features a bucket of snow you can rub over yourself. Or, you can pour a bucket of ice water over your head or jump into a pool of bitterly cold water (both highly desirable post-sauna activities in these parts). I opted instead for the cool waters of the central wading pool.

Note: the complex is co-ed and, during my visit, not everyone was wearing their swimsuit. Some things you cannot un-see.

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The air inside the sauna was literally shimmering with heat.

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The “ice hole.” Plunge into the freezing water at your own risk.

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The Banja bath complex also includes an outdoor Jacuzzi.

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Have you ever been to the Baltic coast?

What’s the most interesting spa treatment you’ve ever gotten abroad?

 

Thai Massage: It Hurts So Good!

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After our exhilarating but exhausting day with the elephants, my muscles ached from the strenuous activity and I was in need of some expert care. Luckily, there is no shortage of massage parlors in Thailand. But with so many options available, how do you choose? Signs advertised oil massages, which many Westerners are most familiar with. Relaxed patrons could be found having foot massages on the sidewalk, oblivious to the goings-on around them. The more initiated could even receive a pedicure at a fish spa where tiny fish nibble off calluses and dead skin. But I was looking for something less gimmicky and more authentically Thai.

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Traditional Thai massage is said to have been created by Buddha’s physician over 2,500 years ago. True practitioners are considered healers who are supposed to feel compassion and humility and should connect with their client on a deeper level. The massages given at Buddhist temples are reportedly remarkable and I regret not finding out for myself.

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I ultimately settled on a traditional Thai massage at a parlor around the corner from our hotel. For less than 5 USD, the petite Thai masseuse channeled her inner sumo wrestler and applied more pressure than her small frame appears capable of. The massage consisted of a series of deep stretches not unlike yoga poses. The masseuse used her full body weight to stabilize my lower half while slowly pulling my arms behind me until my chest rose in a cobra position. I have done yoga before so my back was prepared for the movements. Over the course of an hour, I was pushed, pulled and kneaded with rhythmic movements of the practitioner’s hands, arms and feet. It was the most active massage I’ve ever received and I left feeling two inches taller.

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Hooked on the healing properties of massage, I partook of a 30 minute foot massage while waiting for a connecting flight at Bangkok’s airport. While it wasn’t the most relaxing experience, at less than 8 USD it was a cost-effective way to pass the time.

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The last few days of our Thai vacation was spent on the gorgeous Koh Lanta, an island just south of Krabi. We stayed at the Pimalai Resort and Spa and, giving in to the relaxed atmosphere, I signed up for an hour and a half oil massage at the onsite spa. My skin was tight and dry after five days of sun and pool water and was in desperate need of some TLC. I was served a cooling herbal tea while I picked out my preferred oil treatment, then was shown to a private room. The spa is set in a lush tropical forest and the sounds of nature relaxed me before we even got started.

At the requested medium pressure, her strength was such that she could probably still crush a watermelon between her palms. Slowly moving from the tips of my toes to the top of my head, she worked the oil into my parched skin while I dozed contentedly. Afterwards, she led me to a chair on the terrace and served warming ginger tea while I soaked up my surroundings. At 2,500 baht (around 80 USD), it was a definite splurge, but made for one heck of an end to our vacation!

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Have you ever had a Thai massage?