This is a guest post by Philip Birzulis, founder of travelinlatvia.lv, tour guide extraordinaire, and pirts enthusiast.
As with many other natural processes, Western marketing has turned sweating into something gross. But rather than reaching for the deodorant, northeast Europeans have for millennia linked perspiration with purification. The Russian banya, Finnish sauna, Estonian saun, Swedish bastu, Lithuanian pirtis and Latvian pirts are places which the naked body enters filthy and departs cleansed via the stimulated gushing of the pores.
A typical, wooden Latvian pirts
The basic idea is the same across this vast region. Build a wooden shack. Splash water on heated rocks, get your body glistening hot, then drop into the adjacent lake or stream. Repeat. Gently spank yourself with leafy branches to intensify the feeling. Repeat. This releases endorphins which make you feel good, improves circulation and expunges a week’s worth of farm dirt from the skin. Repeat every Saturday evening for a long, healthy life.
Timber and water (not to mention cold weather) are abundant in this part of the world, so sweating it out was an ideal ablution solution before shower gels and exfoliating peels reached the village store. But even with all the hygiene options around today, the bathhouse is as loved by stressed office rats as the bodily weary toilers of yesteryear. The Finns think they invented the concept, but that’s like claiming to have discovered motherhood; like Santa Claus, the bathhouse belongs to everyone, whatever tourism boosters might say. And Latvians have been busy turning their pirts into an art form.
Ancient folk songs reveal that Latvian men and women have been going in the pirts together for centuries, to get clean and to have fun. Women also gave birth in the pirts since it was the cleanest place around, and the deceased were laid out there, making it a port of call from conception to grave.
The pirts degenerated in the Soviet era into grotty urban public saunas, reaching a nadir in the early 1990’s when Mafiosi frequented these for whoring, boozing and deal-making. But the pirts has cleaned up its act, and today you can’t go far in Latvia without seeing a wisp of smoke from a pirts chimney – beside a farm dam, near a beach or floating on a barge on the Daugava River by Riga’s Old Town. Pirts can be found on the backs of trucks, in derelict factories and in the cellars of ancient manor houses. You can cool down under waterwheels in old mills, duck under Europe’s widest waterfall the Ventas Rumba after a pirts in Kuldīga , shoot down a 20-metre slide into a pool or slip into an ice hole. Pirts masters will merrily conclude your pirts experience by rubbing you down with salt, mud, coffee grounds, honey or fresh strawberries.
The Latvian pirts is a bewitching dance of the four core elements:
Earth – Brushes, besoms, whisks, slotiņas in Latvian. Whatever you call them, they are the leafy twigs that dance along the flesh, opening it up to healing heat like a sunflower. Oak, birch, linden, maple, juniper and even hemp are gathered by connoisseurs for pirts use, while the lazy can buy eucalyptus switches, whose amazing essential oils add another dimension to the experience.
Wind – The idea in using slotiņas is not to slap the hell out of your partner; rather, this is a tender three-way massage involving two humans and Mother Nature. Some of the best practitioners barely make contact with the skin, rather whistling warm breezes along the body.
Water – Steam. That breathtaking plunge into the pool or pond. Herbal teas and another quintessential Latvian thirst quencher – birch sap juice. Maybe a beer or two, but a real pirts is not about getting drunk.
Fire – It’s not about making it as hot as possible. About 70-80 degrees Celsius with plenty of humidity is ideal, as you want to sweat, not burn. A true pirts is wood fired. Anything with an electric heater is just one of those saunas found in gyms around the world.
A fifth vital element is company. Being with folks you feel at ease with is essential if you’re going to relax and get the most out of the ritual. And weird as it may sound, hanging out with a bunch of naked people aids this, since in our birthday suits we are all equally vulnerable. Latvians and the country’s large Russian-speaking community don’t always mingle in everyday life, but they sweat together – in the pirts, no one cares what language you speak, and the esteemed status of the bathhouse in both cultures makes this a bonding link. Pirts lovers just want to have good, clean fun.
Outside the bathhouse, Philip Birzulis is the founder of travelinlatvia.lv, which includes a guide to the best pirts in Latvia.