Ever dreamed of escaping the city and beginning a new life in the countryside?
Krista made that decision for her growing family 15 years ago and swapped their home in Tallinn for land on the side of a hill in south Estonia where they built a new family home, as well as their new business venture — Toidupada.
Toidupada, which means cooking pot in Estonian, offers accommodation and dining at the top of the hill in addition to the smoke sauna and barrel sauna (hot tub) alongside a pond at the bottom.
The first smoke sauna that Krista built here actually burnt down, but it has been wonderfully rebuilt.
The cabin is divided into an eesruum (pre-room) and a leiliruum (hot room) of equal size with blackened wooden walls. The stove is enormous and so too are the stones piled up on top around a pot for heating water.
Smoke saunas are the oldest type of Estonian saunas — and still believed to be the best by many sauna fans.
They pre-date the introduction of chimneys so the fire is lit inside the room and then the smoke is simply left to fill up inside — sometimes with meat or fish left there to cook slowly. It can’t be continuously fired like a sauna with a chimney so the stove and the stones have to be enormous in order to retain the heat long into the night.
Once the fire dies down, the room remains closed for at least one hour before the doors and windows are opened for the smoke to drift out and the karm to be thrown out.
Karm is like leil, the steam that rises when you pour on the stones. The first few times you do this in a smoke sauna though it will generate karm instead because it includes the substances left on the stones by the smoke. That’s why you do this with the door and window open — and your eyes and mouth closed!
The smoke sauna is then ready for everyone to enter. By the time the sauna is finished, everyone will be refreshed, reinvigorated… and covered in soot.
This is an incredibly special experience because it provides a gentler and superior form of heat with rich aromas left by the smoke and the food that was inside. It also helps us understand how our ancestors originally used saunas, not just to stay warm but also to create a smoke-sterilised room that could be used for almost everything necessary to sustain life in a harsh and unforgiving Northern European landscape — from preparing food to serving as an early hospital ward.
Almost all Estonian smoke saunas are in southern Estonia — particularly Võrumaa — where they have been given protected cultural status by UNESCO.
Toidupada’s smoke sauna can easily fit up to 10 people inside and takes between five to seven hours to prepare so Krista lit the fire for us early in the morning, before we had even woken up on the other side of Estonia.
We arrived with a group of friends in the late afternoon of what happened to be the warmest day of the year. We were also joined by Ekvilibrist, an awesome Estonian photographer that we previously met at another sauna nearby. She took all the photos in this article.
We came not just to enjoy the sauna, but also to establish our own company, Estonian Saunas. Companies in Estonia can be established entirely online from anywhere using our digital identities so we thought we would have some fun with that and start the first ever company inside a sauna:
Estonians start the first company inside a sauna
TALLINN - According to Estonian tradition, the sauna is where life's most important milestones are celebrated. So an…
It could also be the first company established without wearing clothes, but who knows!
This process was completed in about 10 minutes so our laptops and phones could handle the heat before the water was poured on the stones. Fortunately, even a sauna as remote as this one in Estonia has a 4G connection.
After that, we celebrated by jumping into the pond outside, which was slowly thawing in the spring temperatures.
Although the smoke sauna will eventually lose its heat later in the evening, the barrel sauna — which fits up to 8 people — does actually have a chimney so can be heated as long as you wish. In fact, it was still warm when we returned to it the next morning.
The design of the barrel sauna is so modern that it’s not actually a barrel and instead has a plastic interior with piping that circulates the heat from an exterior stove.
It felt like we were in the cooking pot, but the actual cooking pots (after which Toidupada is named) are located at the top of the hill. Krista uses them to serve awesome food to her guests at the outdoor terrace or dining room there.
We brought our own sauna hats, but that wasn’t necessary because there’s already a selection hanging up in the eesruum. It’s always interesting to see which hats people pick for themselves!
As night fell and the temperature dropped lower, we remained in the barrel sauna. The only light was from the stars above us and the only noises came from the local wildlife.
Perhaps moving to a remote part of Estonia would be a good idea one day. Until then, we are going to bring the smoke sauna tradition back to Tallinn where more people can experience it.
How to visit this Estonian sauna
Toidupada is located in Valgamaa, which is about a 3.5 hour drive from Tallinn. You could even travel here by public transport though if you catch a train or bus to Otepää then take a 20 minute taxi ride the rest of the way.
You can book accommodation, dining, the saunas (or all of them together) by phoning +372 5623 0922 or emailing email@example.com. Tell Krista we said tere.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.