“Rüsijää”. It’s a beautiful word that rolls off the tongue — or at least it would do were my teeth not trembling while trying to say it.
Anni Oviir and I were continuing our quest to visit the weirdest and most wonderful saunas across Estonia when we arrived at a floating sauna cabin in deep winter surrounded by what she pointed out was called rüsijää in Estonian.
Fresh snow crunched beneath our feet as we carefully made our way along a narrow wooden path above the Emajõgi. This river flows east out of the centre of the country from Võrtsjärv, the largest lake entirely in Estonia, and eventually spills out into Peipsijärv, an even larger lake that is shared with our Russian neighbours. Halfway along that journey is the town of Tartu where this new sauna is located right in the centre.
The frozen surface below us close to the shore was smooth and pristine, but the centre of the river had transformed into a sharp, jagged landscape. That type of ice, which is crushed together by the forces of nature, is known as rüsijää. In this case, the river had frozen before the current began flowing faster, which then lifted away the sheets of ice upstream and dumped them here.
I would never have noticed this icy phenomenon were it not for the fact that I’d been given a word for it in Estonian. It’s a reminder that every language is a unique way of seeing and understanding the world around us.
Although it looks today more like the surface of a distant planet beyond our solar system, Tartu is very much a vibrant university town — and also considered the cradle of Estonian culture. It’s largely thanks to this town that the word rüsijää, and the entire Estonian way of seeing the world, still exists. Despite having no sex and no future, Estonian speakers still have a remarkable ability to survive against the odds.
Tartu has repeatedly changed hands (and names) between the regional powers throughout its history. After being destroyed and rebuilt enough times, it was here that the Estonians began to recognise themselves as a nation and take control of their destiny.
Out of the university came the first Estonians to produce their own newspapers, their own art performances, their own cultural societies, and their first song festival. This national awakening throughout the 19th century eventually led to the most ambitious idea of them all, their own Republic. Even the national flag of Estonia was once just the flag of a student society in Tartu. This town is also where the birth certificate for the Republic was issued — in the form of the Treaty of Tartu signed with Soviet Russia.
Against all odds, the Estonian people are still today in charge of their destiny as a free Republic. And that’s why we still have such beautiful words as rüsijää.
Anni and I were visiting Tartu to check out the Estonian National Museum, which includes a full sized mock sauna within its exhibit on Finno-Ugric culture.
Many cultures around the world practise communal sweating in various ways, but the distinctive northern European ‘sauna’ tradition is rooted in the culture of Finno-Ugric peoples, which includes Finns and Estonians alongside other peoples across the region without their own states. By their nature, saunas are a symbol of independence as they are a big part of the reason that people have been able to survive and eventually thrive in this sometimes harsh northern European climate.
Finland’s own national awakening movement chose to champion the sauna as a unifying symbol of its national culture, which was so successful that even the word for sauna in English is borrowed directly from Finnish. Estonian saunas are less well known globally, but just as integral to the Estonian national identity.
Five minutes away from the museum, Lauri Palumets had just heated his own sauna and invited us over to try it out. I had heard about his project through a friend so immediately took up the offer. We left the museum early and were soon at Estonia’s newest sauna, which we found on the river rocking gently back and forth in the middle of this cradle of culture.
Lauri comes across the archetypal Estonian man. He built this new sauna by himself, in between his studies to be a teacher and his part time work as skipper of Lodi— an infamous historic sailing ship currently hauled onto the shore nearby.
His new sauna cabin is berthed within Lodjakoda, which is literally ‘the home of Lodi’.
Lauri began his studies to be a teacher in 2017, which was when he started searching for an affordable place to live locally. Rather than opting for a shared apartment though, Lauri did some calculations and decided that his best option was to simply construct his own cabin on the river.
By our own quick estimate, there are already about 20 saunas floating on Emajõgi, including about six others in Tartu itself.
Less the two years later, Lauri’s project is complete, although he’s now found a home he likes on the shore so has started renting his floating cabin out for sauna sessions instead. It still has a bed that can be folded down though in case those sessions go on a little late.
After marveling at the design, I turned to Lauri and asked how he learned the skills to construct all this.
“This kind of stuff you don’t need to learn,” says Lauri in typical Estonian understatement. “You just build.”
Anni is also looking across at me with a confused reaction to my question, as if everyone knew Estonians were born with the innate ability to construct a floating sauna cabin.
At this point, I pause from my notes while writing this article and glance up at the light fixture in my own home, which is dangling precariously above my head. I planned to watch a few YouTube videos just to figure out how to connect that properly, although Anni is already digging out her tool kit to get it sorted.
“The most difficult part was choosing the colour scheme,” Lauri added. I started to laugh then realised he was absolutely serious.
The leiliruum (hot room) has a large window that looks upstream, while the eesruum (sauna pre-room for relaxation) has even larger windows and a terrace that face downstream into the town centre.
These windows were a huge dilemma for Lauri during the construction. They are incredibly inefficient for keeping the cabin warm so the more obvious option for this part of the world would be to keep them as small as possible. But, he thought to himself, what’s the point being on the river in such a special location if you don’t make the most of it? So he threw convention out of his large windows and designed them to give his cabin the widest possible views. We think he made the right decision.
He used a similar transparent approach for the fireplace. A sauna stove is often just black metal, but Lauri built a large window into this too from the eesruum so that you can relax next to the fireplace and enjoy the sight, as well as the heat, of the wood burning.
Outside, Lauri shows me how he preserves access to the water in the deep winter. He brings out a heavy rod with a blunt end for smashing the ice and a long jääsaag (ice saw) for cutting out shapes.
It’s such a tough workout that I almost forget the freezing temperatures around me.
After that, we warmed back up in the leiliruum again before it was time to enjoy the freezing waters of Emajõgi below.
‘Don’t panic’ is always the most important advice when submerging in sub zero water as the shock is part psychological. This is easier said than done, but — at the very least — trying to breathe normally does make the experience much easier to endure.
As the middle of the river was jammed with rüsijää however, the water was flowing even faster than expected around the sauna and this seemed to lower the temperature even further.
It feels great, although I only remember just how cold it is when I glance across at the opposite shore and notice people walking up and down the path with every inch of their body covered to protect themselves from the weather.
Don’t get us wrong — Estonia’s new national museum is incredible and we strongly recommend that you visit for as long as possible.
But Estonia is also a living, breathing country so the best way to understand and preserve the Estonian way of seeing things is to actually do them too.
Anni and I started our own project to help share Estonian sauna culture with the world and we produce this blog to document our travels along the way. As you can see, we tend to spend a fairly brief amount of time describing the actual sauna then keep going wildly off-topic to examine the issues we encounter while there. That’s because we think the most interesting thing about saunas is the people who use them.
You can learn a lot about the story of Estonia through its saunas because these have both shaped history here and been shaped by history here.
Lauri’s sauna is now one of our very favourite saunas in Estonia so we definitely plan to come back and enjoy it again. You can also book it yourself here. We think it’s special precisely because it such an ordinary Estonian sauna in the middle of an ordinary Estonian town, symbolising independence, ingenuity, and the continuation of traditions against all the odds. And that is pretty remarkable.
Oh, and the colour scheme is nice too.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at email@example.com.