- Estonia is flat land, half hidden by forests, and has remarkably clean air.
- It also has more supermodels per capita than any other nation.
- Thomas W. Hodgkinson visits and tests a smoke sauna near the Latvian border
- This involves boiling steam mixed with the aroma of smoldering wood.
Club! Club! I am lying naked on a wooden bench while an Estonian woman beats me with birch leaves. Trust me, there is an innocent explanation.
I am in rural Estonia, experiencing the mysteries of a smoke sauna. After a nasty run-in with Covid, I’m looking forward to recharging my batteries and where better than this sleepy country in the northeast corner of Europe? A flat land, half hidden by forests, Estonia has some of the cleanest air you will ever find. It also has more supermodels per capita than any other nation.
Arriving at the Mooska smoke sauna, near the Latvian border, it takes a while for my inhibitions to dissolve. Even after learning that nudity is encouraged, I cling to my little towel when I enter the cabin.
At first, too, I raise an eyebrow when Eda Veeroja, the earthly priestess of the place, explains the ancient magic of the sauna: how it puts you in touch with the ghosts of your ancestors, etc. When Eda, now naked, bangs a drum and begins to sing, me and the other members of my group drenched in sweat join in.
Fairy tale city: The old towers of the city center of Tallinn. While there Thomas discovers the work of the ‘Estonian Banksy’
We all wear felt sauna hats that make us look like leprechauns. If it’s too hot, we take a dip in the outdoor natural pool.
Saunas are a big problem in Estonia, but a smoke sauna is different. Boiling steam is mixed with the aroma of smoldering wood. Then there are the pagan things. At one point, we beat each other with leaves while singing: ‘May the wisdom of my butt go to my brain.’
Whats Next? I wonder. The answer is the niche hobby of swamp stomping. The non-forest parts of Estonia are largely swampy.
So the next morning, we slip on plastic shoe extensions that resemble tennis rackets and set off with swamp experts Algis and Jana. Algis sees a tiny marsh frog; Jana distinguishes the hardy sphagnum that gives the swamp its reddish color from the occasional sundew, a tiny carnivorous flower that can be used to treat herpes.
Thomas experiences a smoke sauna near the Latvian border. A natural outdoor pool is used to cool off (file image)
Outside a hipster bar in Tallinn, the country’s capital, I strike up a conversation with a young French woman who, frustrated by French bureaucracy, moved to Estonia to set up her own vegan cooking company.
Across the square is a famous work by Estonian Banksy, a mysterious street artist known as Edward von Longus. It shows a skeleton dancing with a man who is taking a selfie.
This is a playful reference to the 16th century painting Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke. Now housed in Tallinn’s Niguliste Museum, this splendid work shows a row of skeletons forcing humans to dance. In von Longus’ version, the tables are reversed. The Grim Reaper has become another photo shoot.
It would be a stretch to call my Covid attack an encounter with the Grim Reaper.
But when I return home after five days in Estonia, I have eaten well and been beaten well.
They also fitted me in, met some lovely locals and learned a lot more than I expected.