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Travel: Sauna-themed trip to Finland with David Baddiel

Gayle Ritchie and David Baddiel on a sauna-themed trip to Finland.
Gayle Ritchie and David Baddiel on a sauna-themed trip to Finland.

Gayle Ritchie enjoys a sauna-themed trip to Finland – and ends up hanging out with David Baddiel.

I’m sitting next to David Baddiel, sweating profusely in a sauna, while two “shamans” dressed in striped bathing suits chant spells and flagellate us with birch sticks. No, I’m not dreaming – this really is happening.

I’m on a media trip to Finland during the World Sauna Forum (yes, really), and taking part in a “sauna ceremony” is up there with the best and most bizarre things on offer.

I hadn’t expected to be accompanied by the comedian, once part of a double act with Frank Skinner, but, well, here he is. A sauna aficionado who boasts one in his garden, David, like me, jumped at the chance to join the group.

Having never been to Finland, a wild land of dense forests, crystal-clear lakes, Moomins and “nightless nights”, I was super excited.

The gulf of Finland.

Entwined in the culture

Finnish folk love saunas – they’re entwined in the national culture, found in homes, offices, on islands, everywhere, and I was looking forward to getting a sweat on.

When I turned up in Helsinki late (my flight was delayed and my luggage ‘lost’), I was welcomed by a friendly bunch of people who plied me with prosecco and informed me that I was pronouncing the word, sauna, incorrectly. “It’s SOW-na,” one lady beamed.

Back at my hotel, the Lapland Bulevardi, I enjoyed my first sauna with a fellow journalist and a Finn. We stripped off, enjoyed the steam, and headed off to our beds.

Inside a Finnish sauna.

Boat trip

The next morning, after a sumptuous buffet breakfast, I took a fab boat trip through the Helsinki archipelago, passing the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, a Unesco world heritage site.

Pier, harbour and quay on an island near Helsinki.

Allas Sea Pool

Back on land, I headed to Allas Sea Pool for a swim. There are three outdoor pools here but the “floating” outdoor saunas were under repair, after a ferry crashed into them in January.

Allas Sea Pool.

There were other saunas inside, and so, thinking I was in the women’s-only area, I stripped off and strolled on in.

Immediately, I knew I’d made a serious faux-pas. Men, women and gaggles of children sat round the edges, all sporting swimwear. And here was me, stark naked. Rather than scuttle off with my tail between my legs, I decided to style it out: I could do this.

Careful not to make eye contact, I found a spot close to the door, crossed my legs and placed a hand strategically over my chest. It would be fine. Nobody commented, smirked or laughed, thank God!


That afternoon, I joined the group and spent an amazing few hours at Loyly, a public sauna, restaurant and bar on the waterfront.

Here we experienced three saunas (while sporting bathing gear!) – wood-heated, electric and smoke. Jumping into the sea afterwards was chilly but invigorating.


Our hotel for the night was Tampere’s Lapland Arena, and this is when David joined us.

Slightly aloof initially, he soon chilled out and opened up, keen to chat about his love of cats and saunas.

A ‘nightless night’ in Tampere.

Art sauna

After breakfast the next day, we headed to Serlachius Museum and its new Art Sauna.

Alas, this hadn’t quite opened, but we saw stunning art, devoured a lavish lunch, and plunged into the gorgeous waters of the adjacent lake. Bliss.

Swimming in the lake next to the Art Sauna.

Back in Tampere, we had “free time”, and seeing as my luggage hadn’t materialised, I wandered round shops hunting for cheap clothes. Thank goodness for H&M’s sale section.

Boozy sauna party

That evening, there was a boozy World Sauna Forum party on the hotel terrace, and I squeezed my way into the mixed sauna with David.

Drunk folk, mainly men, chanted and sang, knocked back beers, sweated profusely and beat each other with birch branches. Yup, that’s supposed to improve circulation and ease mosquito bites, so why the heck not!

David exited before me, looking somewhat bemused, and I followed suit, keen to get some air into my lungs.

Sauna shamans

The next morning was the highlight of my Finnish experience. A bus took us to Tahmela’s Villa for a “unique sauna ceremony” with sauna shamans Juha and Matti.

The shamans, I’d guess to be in their 30s, greeted us outside a ramshackle cottage, dressed in striped vintage bathing suits and pointy hats.

Their mission, they told us, was to “connect human and natural elements through sauna”, and to heal and encourage us to find peace within.

Finnish sauna shamans Juha and Matti.

Before entering the sauna, Matti knocked on the door, “to let the sauna elf know we’re here”. Nobody laughed.

Once inside, it was roasting, but Juha, who did his dissertation on sauna hats, warned it was going to get much hotter.

Now I’m no celebrity stalker but somehow I managed to find myself sat right next to David – again.

After a few minutes of silence, Juha, who has the deepest, most soothing voice I’ve ever heard, started chanting, and then singing, inviting the sauna spirits to come on in.

The sauna shamans offer a unique experience.

Matti joined in, and as their voices floated around inside the steamy space, I felt my head getting lighter, my body getting sweatier, and my breathing deeper – yep, it was as close to an out-of-body experience as I think I’ve had.

With our eyes closed, the shamans lifted our feet into pails of water and bent us forwards – to allow them to flagellate our backs, necks, legs and shoulders with birch branches. So many sensations – the sound of chanting, singing, the smell of birch, the heat on the skin.

Into the lake to cool off!

All too soon it was over, and we stood up, dazed but rejuvenated. David and I headed straight to the lake and plunged on in. What a contrast, but a shockingly good one.

We then hung out for a bit in the yurt sauna, before having lunch at the city’s market hall and boarding a train back to Helsinki.

The media group – with David Baddiel in the corner.

Ferry to Lonna

It was my last night in Finland (others were staying longer) and we took a ferry to Lonna island for yet another sauna, sea swim and dinner.

On the ferry with fellow journalist Pip.
Gayle and Pip after their sauna on Lonna.

Stunning Seurasaari

Reluctant to leave, and with my flight not until late afternoon the following day, I took a tram and walked to the island of Seurasaari, joined to the mainland by bridge.

This boasts an open-air museum full of farmsteads, smoke cabins, crofts, churches, windmills and manor houses, offering an insight into Finnish life in days gone by. I had time for a wee swim before heading to the airport.

Gayle explores the rustic farmsteads of Seurasaari.

So, Finland. What an experience! I can’t wait to return. At least I’ll know how to pronounce “sauna”, and whether or not to go full monty next time…

Cheers, Finland!