I was delightfully hosted at hotel Spa Ezeri by the Latvian Tourism Board as part of my travels with the Women In Travel Summit.
“Come, let’s make shower together,” the sauna master says as he leads a completely naked and vulnerable me out of the hot sauna house, in the dark, down the stairs of a deck, to where he proceeds to pour buckets of cold water over my head. I didn’t really have much of a say in the matter. Being led by my arm by a sauna master, a man in a beige linen skirt and a little black sauna master hat at Spa Ezeri hotel, outside of Sigulda in Latvia I’m embracing this walk outside my comfort zone.
Normally I would prefer men buy me dinner and drinks before we take a shower together. This night is not the case. I’m in a traditional Latvian sauna with three other ladies. One woman, Nora I know from the Toronto travel writer world. The other two women, Inma and Jenna, I met earlier that morning and now we’re all naked together. We are being doted on by our two sauna masters, both male. Let’s call this a winning moment, shall we?
Some things in Europe are a little bit different than North America. We, in North America, tend to be a bit more reserved about public nudity or nudity with strangers. The idea of four naked women rinsing off in a shower together by North American standards is the start of a tantalizing pornographic story. In Latvia, it’s purely part of the sauna ritual.
My First Traditional Latvia Sauna Experience
This is my first Latvian sauna experience and although I had some reservations about being naked with the sauna masters who happened to be men and part of the treatment was to be beaten by them with bushes in the process, it turned out to be amazing. I finished off cocooned on a straw mattress under the stars while having the spins… stone fucking sober. Feeling high as a kite.
Allow me to back up as to how we all got here and explain what the Latvian sauna ritual is. Northern Europeans take their sauna rituals seriously. In Latvia, a traditional sauna experience is a mix of pagan acts, aromatherapy, heat, massage and contemporary sauna experiences. A traditional Latvia sauna is called a pirts. A pirts has served many purposes throughout history, particularly prior to the 13th-century conversion to Christianity. Always a separate building from the homestead, it functioned as a bathhouse, a place to give birth, a place people were taken before passing away and a place for newborns to have their first bath.
Do you remember seeing the movie, Frozen?
That’s the whole family in a sauna together and that is normal. It was explained to me that often, the father figure of the family would act as the sauna master and perform the ritual with children and grandchildren. They all have towels on, so they’re not based in Latvia clearly.
We had towels to sit on, but we weren’t wearing them. We were not allowed to bring our phones or cameras in, so I will have to paint you a picture with my words.
SPA HOTEL EZERI
After a day of hiking in Gauja National Park, we, as in the other female travel writers I was with on our media trip, are dropped off at Spa Ezeri Hotel for the night. We are divided into two groups for our sauna experience. Upon check-in, we were slightly prepped for what was about to happen. By slightly, the receptionist said it is possible to wear a bathing suit in the sauna. Great, I had packed mine and flip flops too!
We drop our bags in our room and then I meet back with Nora, Inma and Jenna in the lobby. We are led down to the sauna hut that is also a change room, where we are briefed by one of the sauna masters, who also happens to own the establishment we are in.
Your sauna experience is presided over by a sauna master called a pirtnieks. One of the pirtnieks talks us out of using bathing suits for the purposes of our own health. Essentially we are going to be in and out of the steamy heat and cold pond, exfoliated and whipped with bushes over the course of the next three hours. Sitting in a wet bathing suit bottom is fairly nasty at the best of times. It’s best we completely disrobe.
This is the moment where Nora from The Professional Hobo and I realize that we’re going to be friends forever after this.
Let’s Get Naked, Shall We?
In Latvia, a traditional sauna is steeped with pagan rituals that existed prior to the country’s 13th-century conversion to Christianity. There didn’t seem to be much modesty or synthetic bathing suits back then, so when in Latvia…
Of course, I’m not going to show a nude picture of us… Geez.
Anyway, once we disrobe and place our belonging in drawers, we are given a robe for the walk to the next sauna hut. There, we were instructed to hang them up and get in the shower. Together. As we all stood there and giggled at the thought, we just knew that was the moment of no going back. Here we go. So on the water came, off the robes went and now we are all rinsing off with one shower head. This is just the surface rinse. The real cleansing is about to begin.
Back in those pagan times, the steam from the sauna stones was thought to have magical, purification powers. We are taken by one of our sauna masters in pairs into the steam room. The pirtneiks remain in there with us and are experiencing the heat as well. They wear a cap and linens.
It’s here in the first session in the sauna that we are introduced to the brushes or whisks of leaves. Used for aromatherapy, the brushes that we are exposed to are leaves from oak and maple trees. They don’t touch us with them yet. They are waved in front of our faces and bodies to create stimulation and movement of the air.
Once it is determined that we have enough of the heat, it’s time to get cooled off.
And this is where we are making a shower with the sauna master. Each of us led out solo to have the buckets of cold pond water poured over our heads with no mercy. I don’t remember if I screamed or giggled in the moment. I’m sure I tried to run away, but really, where are you going? It’s November in a northern Baltic country. You’re not going to get far without any clothes on. I’m fairly certain he was holding me by the arm from fleeing with one hand and pouring the bucket of cold water over my head with the other.
It would be remiss of me to mention that this isn’t something you would do first thing in the morning. These sessions normally start in the late afternoon and evening. It was nightfall by the time the first plunge water was thrust over my head.
The sauna masters explain to us that in Latvia, it’s recommended to have a sauna experience on a regular basis. Monthly, if not weekly is the normal procedure for Latvians. According to the latest WHO data published in 2018, life expectancy in Latvia is for males 70, and females, 79. Considering the past and history with Germany and the USSR and the country being a baby in terms of its own growth, that’s not bad. I’ll buy this.
Once you have been sufficiently shocked (um, rinsed off) by the cold water shower, it’s time to go back inside for herbal tea, cheese and fruit and relax. As mentioned, this whole process is close to three hours long so you do not immediately rush back into the heat of the sauna again. When you do make your way back into the heat, the second round of the traditional Latvian sauna experience entails your pirtneik using a salt scrub on your body to cleanse your pores. They massage, follow and trace all your energy lines from your toes to your head to ensure a full purification and relaxation.
You are then led outside again and you are either submerged into the cold pond or once again, cleansed with the cold water from the bucket. When I say submerged, I am not joking.
And at this point, your inhibitions have gone out the window. You’re still naked. Likely very comfortable about it now. This is Lativa. Viva Latvia my friends.
Your third time in the heat of the sauna is when the brush of leaves are used to gently swat the body and stimulate circulation. Starting from the bottom of your feet, the care and attention is devoted to the whole body. I can see how wearing a bathing suit would be in the way of the process. I cannot fathom the same effect being rendered at the end without the exposure.
Once this ritual is concluded, you are again led outside, in the dark, for your final plunge. Once complete, the sauna masters wrap you with blankets, cocoon you almost and lay you on a straw blanket outside in the fresh air. This is where you feel reborn. Or like a newborn. However you wish to describe it, my heart was beating slow and through my back. I looked up at the stars and was spinning in a euphoria I had yet to ever experience. Not a drunk spin, but a refreshed and cleansed feeling.
When all four of us ladies had been wrapped up, the robes went back on, we were sent back to the changing hut and then we all just laughed and laughed about what we had just done. What an experience. I can’t wait to do this again. Can’t say I’d want to do this with my kids though! The arousal factor after was kind of high – in a very cathartic way.