Sauna for the soul
Tallinn, Estonia

Earlier this morning, I bogshoed through Meenikunno bog, its wetland brimming with tiny cranberries ripe for eating by the handful. As the Estonians say, “All roads lead into the bog. Into the bogland they go, to free their mind and find their soul.” Bogshoes (which are similar to snowshoes) date back 6,000 years and prevent damage to the bog’s fragile ecosystem. Each time I stood still, there was complete and endless silence: no sirens, no fire trucks, no car horns, no barking dogs. A soundtrack of silence to purify the spirit. I could hear my breathing in the bog, just as I can now in the smoke sauna as I scrub with salt to cleanse my body of evil spirits (and dead skin of course). 




One more plunge below the ice, whereafter I am rewarded with wild honey in my palm –not to eat, but to slather over my limbs. (This somehow reminds me of Madonna, who used to do the same with honey from a yacht in Biscayne Bay during her time in Miami. Oh, the mind unleashed.) Meanwhile, Veeroja explains how saunas throughout history have been used for treating illnesses and for childbirth, as well as a place to wash and prepare the deceased – all of which infuses the sauna with a sense of sanctity.

As one local shares with me, “Saunas in Estonia are the original social network… and still the best social network.” This reminds me of an event from 1989 (during “Soviet times,” as Estonians say) known as the Baltic Chain, when around two million people joined hands for more than 600 kilometres across the three Soviet Socialist Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. A sign of solidarity and a peaceful protest for independence from the USSR, the Baltic Chain protested Soviet occupation all around the globe. Today, the Estonian National Museum in Tartu offers an interactive exhibition of that extraordinary human chain of peaceful activism.

At the museum, on a former Soviet runway, there is also a massive set of bookshelves filled with books from the Soviet era, including a covert cabinet (salakapp) that contains censored editions published in secret and passed hand to hand. The museum’s collection came about in the late 19th century when volunteers went house to house through the villages of Estonia. They received objects and mementoes donated by locals: a national museum for the people by the people – which I think seems fitting for a country that’s preserved its identity by sharing person to person.

In the dark of winter’s night, as I leave Mooska Farm, I find myself ruminating on the tenacity of the human spirit. In 2016, Estonia became the first former Soviet state to legalise same-sex partnerships; anti-discrimination laws have been in effect for years and LGBTQ+ people serve openly in the military. Pride parades have been held in Tallinn since 2004. 

In the years since its independence in 1991, Estonian society has embraced advances in technology and has the world’s first successful e-residency program. In short, Estonia is reborn. Given my own rebirth at Mooska Farm, I credit the saunas.

Mark’s visit to Estonia was in partnership with Visit Estonia. There are many ways to travel between Tallinn and Tartu, by car or train. The journey takes no more than two and a half hours each way.

Photography courtesy of Visit Estonia, Meelika Lehola, Karl Ander Adami, Liina Nota, Ilya Orehov, Taaniel Malleus and Tõnu Tunnel

Get out there

Do…

… get to a bog. Bogs and mires comprise more than 20% of the Estonian mainland and are inherently mystical. They are repositories for Estonian folklore replete with flora, fauna and fairies.

… eat the bread. Let go of your dietary restrictions; slather the butter all over the dark, black rye bread (with dried nuts and fruits or seeds, served warm, nearly always homemade. 

… cruise the creative cities – centres of culture situated in former industrial areas. Both Telliskivi in Tallinn and Aparaaditehas in Tartu buzz with energy throughout a honeycomb of art and design studios, cafés, restaurants and shops.

Don’t…

… miss out on sinking into a sauna. Nothing is more Estonian than a sauna, so seek them out (whether on a barge, boat, or in a former Soviet Army truck), sink into one, and let go – of everything. 

… forget to wander around Noblessner. Closed to the public for nearly a century, the erstwhile submarine shipyard (named for the nephew of Alfred Nobel) has become a vibrant neighbourhood.

… put your hands over your ears. Listen to the music, integral to Estonia’s identity. Arvo Pärt, whose meditative music has been termed tintinnabuli (or “little bells”), has a music centre named after him, set in peaceful grounds.