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Pole to Pole

Day 23: Helsinki

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleToday I am to be initiated into the pleasures of the sauna, pronounced 'sow-na' in these parts. It is not a Finnish invention, for the Red Indians used hot stones to keep their tepees warm, and it spread to the West out of Asia. But the Finns have endorsed it with an almost religious zeal, and like any religion it has its orthodoxies and its heresies. One of the most kosher of Finnish saunas is in the grounds of a lakeside house called Hvittrask, a half-hour's drive from Helsinki. The house itself is remarkable. Built ninety years ago by Saarinen, Gesellius and Lundgren - the architects responsible for Helsinki's idiosyncratic railway station - it embodied many of the most advanced ideas in decoration and design, such as en suite bathrooms, central heating and the first use of textiles as wallpaper. All these things that the middle classes eventually adopted were at the time deliberately unconventional and anti-bourgeois.

The sauna is traditional, with a wood fire rather than electricity and the emphasis on dark beams, tiles, and log and granite walls. It's built, like a boathouse, where tall trees meet the lake, to which it is connected by a long wooden jetty.

My companions are a Finnish writer and ex-MP called Lasse, and Neil, an Englishman, who has produced comedy shows on Finnish television and hosted a controversial chat show here. But as Lasse says, as we squeeze our fleshy white bodies onto the slatted wooden shelves of the sauna, 'no one knows who you are when you're naked'.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 23
  • Country/sea: Finland
  • Place: Helsinki
  • Book page no: 47

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