Hot traditions

  • 2006-10-04
  • By Jody Yurkowsky
It is inevitable. Like the changing of the seasons or a transfer by bus between Heathrow and Gatwick, the eventual discovery of the magic of the pirts (sauna) is something that happens to all of us after a prolonged stay in Latvia.

Picture yourself sitting naked (or semi-naked in mixed company) in a small, hot, dimly lit, wooden room with a group of friends. The mood is somber and relaxed as people hunch over themselves with heads down in an effort to cope with the heat. Suddenly a searing mist of steam emanates from the rocks on the stove in the corner as someone throws a cup of water on the fire. Aside from the hissing of the steam, the room becomes even more quite 's the silence being interrupted only by the gasps of you and your companions as the searing heat tingles and forms droplets of sweat all over your body. The heat is almost unbearable, but you withstand it as long as you can.

Then one by one, you and your companions head out of the small wooden chamber in search of a reprieve from the heat. A roll in the snow in winter or a dip in the lake, river or pool located next to the sauna provide a cooling relief that clears your head and allows you to return to the heat a few minutes later. This procedure is repeated several times throughout the evening.
At one point if you are lucky, you will lay along the bench as someone hits you with branches of hot wet leaves. Each kind of branch, birch, oak, current or otherwise, is said to have certain medicinal properties that can be imparted in the heat of the sauna. The quick movements make the air around you even more intensely hot and provide for a tingling massage sensation that seems to bring every pore of your skin alive. This extreme experience does not last long - it is followed by another dip in cold water or snow, the coldness of which is lost on your steaming hot skin.

This is the pirts. A place of relaxation, cleansing and tradition which is a must for anyone who really wants to have an authentic Latvian experience. Similar to the saunas of the Finns, the sweat lodges of the First Nations in North America, the Turkish baths or the Russian banya, the pirts in Latvia is a great place to let go, warm up and generally cleanse oneself of all that ails.
In the old days, the pirts was a place to clean oneself and prepare for important ceremonies. This was where servants lived, meat was dried and beer was brewed. It was also the place for women to give birth. The sauna, therefore, held a very important place in the everyday life of Latvian ancestors. Today the role varies. It is still be the place for washing oneself. Both Riga and all small towns have public saunas where locals go to clean themselves and relax each week 's in fact once accustomed to this practice, a week without this treat seems strange. The pirts is also a place for celebration. It is not uncommon for a birthday or anniversary to be celebrated with a sauna.

Latvia has an abundance of guest houses that have pirts. Some of the best also have pirtnieks 's people who have developed the traditional art of massage with tree branches in the sauna. This practice is a real skill and a good pirtnieks will choose the right branches for you and the procedure that follows will make you feel like a million dollars.
There is often much discussion of how a good pirts is designed, the best construction methods and the right combination of heat and steam in the sauna. This, I have become convinced, is very individual. For this reason, I have refrained from recommending one place in particular. Instead I have provided a list of recommended places in Latvia 's both popular and perhaps some more obscure. Experiment yourself and find your favorite. One thing is certain, if you conquer the heat, you will be hooked.

As with almost all ancient arts and practices, there are many traditional beliefs and superstitions that surround going to the sauna in Latvia. Here are some of the more interesting and instructive. You may want to heed them 's just in case.- You should visit the sauna near the full moon to avoid getting lice.

- If a man uses branches for beating for the first time in autumn, the household won't see a wedding that year.

- You should not leave branches on the floor after use or evil spirits can get at them.

- If leaves from the switches stick to your back after the massage, you should eat at least one and then your sheep will have twins.

- You should never talk about fires in the sauna or it could burn down.

- You should never urinate in the sauna or you will suffer from teary eyes.

- To avoid attracting evil when dressing after the pirts one piece of clothing should always be put on inside out or backwards.

- If you dream that you are washing in the pirts or in dirty water, you will become ill.

- If you are quarrelling with someone, you should tie your sauna branches together at the end of the month.

- If you hang sauna branches in the house, you will get into a fight.

Places worth a visit
Ecologically friendly and organic products. Traditional sauna.
Near Talsi
Tel: +371 6096415

Radi Guest House
Peace, quiet and the professional experience of one of the best pirtnieks in Latvia.
Tel: +371 9538230

Kaijas Guest House
Ecologically friendly farmstead and sauna. Hand picked green teas, natural beauty procedures.
Tel: +371 9454425

Latvia's only mobile sauna!
From Liepaja, but where you want it, by arrangement.
Tel: +371 29798224

Indani Country House
Small intimate traditional sauna and farmstead. Locally made produce, teas. Peace and quiet.
Near Kandava
Tel: +371 29259272

Traditional Latgalian black (or smoke) sauna. Honey scrubs and old time aura.
Tel: +371 26312465

Traditional sauna. Herbal remedies.
Tel: +371 5680363

Maras Muizina
Traditional sauna, green clay procedures, massage.
Near Jelgava
Tel:+371 26323608