By Ints Kalnins
Going to the sauna is an ancient tradition in Estonia. Almost every home owner has at least a small sauna in his/her house or backyard.
Going to a sauna has always been important for socializing, even in ancient times.
A year ago the cultural center in the small south-eastern town of Otepaa decided to organize a sauna marathon. There was a lot of interest in the event and it was even voted as one of the best tourism attractions in the county. This year more than 600 sauna friends arrived to race between and enjoy 20 different saunas – from ancient smoke saunas to modern ones in local spa resorts.
People were organized into teams of four members. Each team was given an orienteering map showing the locations of the saunas and a competition guide. All team members had to be in each sauna for at least three minutes. To check this a team had to give their sauna card to the owner of the sauna upon entering the sauna and the sauna owner confirmed that the team members completed the sauna by marking their sauna card.
As a bonus, there were ice holes to dip into after a sauna, plunge pools and other attractions as well as entertainment provided by sauna owners. This year a heavy snow fall also presented surprises for the participants.
The distance to visit all 20 saunas in Otepaa and its surroundings covered more than 100 kilometers (62 miles). Teams used cars to reach each place. Driving on the narrow and snowy rural roads was an attraction itself – like a winter rally. It’s no surprise that some cars got stuck on the roads and team members had to work up a sweat pushing them back onto the road. I had to ask for help twice from some sauna friends to push out my own car.
Traditionally a sauna is enjoyed with some beer, but drivers followed a strict non-drinking rule, so there were no accidents.
Many of the sauna owners parked their cars a distance from the sauna and participants had to run a few hundred yards to get to the sauna. It was an amazing view to see naked people running during through the snow in this beautiful hilly rural landscape.
Another extreme attraction was to reach a sauna on the top of the steep hill and then get back down the icy slope.
The event was organized as a competition, but many sauna lovers spent much more than three minutes in the best saunas and did not worry about their timings. The most popular was the ancient sauna in Kappa, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the town. The sauna featured a fireplace where stones were heated to a high temperature. Water was thrown over the hot stones to produce steam and to give a sensation of increased heat. Sauna owners also invited two local musicians to entertain the competitors with accordion music and some prepared meals for them.