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Rick Steves' Europe: Helsinki - 'Relax . . . I wash you twice'

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The entire scene is three colors: gray concrete, dark wood, and ruddy flesh. Naked with their hair wet and stringy, people look both more timeless and more ethnic. There’s virtually no indication of what century we’re in. But looking at their faces, it’s clear to me: This is Finland.

Each guy has a tin bucket between his legs for splashing cool water on his face. I ask about the bin of birch twigs that sits on the bottom step. Slapping your skin with these, one man explains, enhances your circulation. The roughed-up leaves emit a refreshing birch aroma as well as chlorophyll, which opens the sinuses.

Part two of a good sauna is the scrub down. The woman in the apron scrubs men one at a time all day long. She’s finishing up with a guy sitting on a plastic chair, dousing him with water. After his work­over, he looks like a lifeless Viking Gumby.

Awkwardly I ask, “Me next?”

She welcomes me to her table. She reminds me of a Stalin-era Soviet tractor driver.

I ask, “Up or down?”

She pushes me flat . . . belly up . . . and says, “This is good. Now, I wash you twice.”


Lying there naked, I feel like a salmon on a cleaning table, ready for gutting. With sudsy mitts, she works me over. Then she hoses me off, which makes me feel even more like a salmon. It’s extremely relaxing. Moving from deep in my scalp to between my toes, she washes me a second time.

Stepping back out into the gritty Helsinki neighborhood, I’m clean, relaxed, and assured that — for bankers, laborers, and tourists, too — the sauna is the great equalizer.


(Rick Steves ( writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at and follow his blog on Facebook.)

©2021 Rick Steves. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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