Back in the summer of 2017, students from the Estonian Academy of Arts built a new sauna in Estonia’s Soomaa National Park and left it there for anyone to turn up and use completely free.
The sauna, which they named VALA, is a work of art and perfectly blends into the beauty of the wilderness that surrounds it. It’s a floating sauna with a very unique design because the students added a gap in the floor so that you can drop straight from the leil-room (sauna steam room) into the river below to instantly cool off.
VALA means pour in Estonian and the sauna has been designed to reflect the special relationship between the water and the surrounding land. Soomaa has five seasons, which includes an extra one between winter and spring called… the fifth season. That’s when the ice melts so rapidly and the water drains so slowly that the entire area is transformed in a flooded landscape with the meadows, forest floor and paths all underwater.
The sauna is also designed as a craft so that it could be used for exploring the river while the fires are still burning inside.
I first heard about this seemingly mythical sauna from my classmate, Zane, who I was studying Estonian language with. She’s an architect from Latvia now working for the Estonian architectural firm B210, which oversaw the summer school sauna project.
We went to track down this sauna and wrote this article about it, which contained directions to help others find it.
Since then, we’ve been back many times. So too have many of you reading this blog who have kept us updated about the sauna.
There are also great hiking trails in the area, including a nearby bog walk, as well as regular canoes passing by the sauna.
I’ve also had to keep editing this article to reflect developments there. On my last visit, for example, this wonderful little Soohotell (bog hotel) appeared next to it:
Then, just as unexpectedly, it disappeared.
The bog hotel was added by more students from the Estonian Academy of Arts who had returned for another summer project. Unfortunately, there were some kind of confusion about the building permission, which led to it being dismantled.
To be fair, the Estonian Forest Management Centre does do a good job maintaining the sauna and also the firepit area nearby, which includes a dry toilet and always enough wood for any visitors. They decided the bog hotel was too much of an added burden.
During the emergency situation after the coronavirus outbreak, this was basically the only ‘public’ sauna that people could visit. Still, we decided not to promote this fact so as not to encourage any crowds.
Now that things are more relaxed and the Baltic Bubble is open, we recently returned with friends and saw other families enjoying the area too — although we still all maintained our social distance. Here’s what it looked like in late May 2020:
You can also see a full video about the sauna (featuring the dearly departed bog hotel) here on our Estonian Saunas YouTube channel:
How to find this Estonian sauna
If you’d like to visit VALA then drive into Soomaa national park from Pärnu or Viljandi and head to the tiny village of Riisa, which you should easily find on Google or Apple Maps.
You should then follow the Raudna river eastwards along its southern bank. Just south of the Raudna river bridge in Riisa, you’ll see there’s now a road that leads through the forest to a car park after a few minutes drive. From there, keep walking for a couple more minutes until you see VALA at the junction between the Raudna and Tõramaa rivers.
There’s always a chance that you’ll have to share the sauna with other travelers. You may also meet the inhabitants of the area, which includes elk, deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, beavers… and bears.
The biggest danger though is much smaller. Ticks. There’s a good chance you might get one of these little creatures on you here and it can cause serious illness if not removed later. Don’t let that put you off though. Simply check your body when leaving then do a more thorough search later. Remove any you find with tweezers.
Thank you to everyone who helped bring this project to life and keep it going.
As mentioned, B210’s architects oversaw the initial project — as well as architects Sami Rintala, Hannes Praks and Justin Tucker. The Estonian Forest Management Service has then maintained it for visitors ever since.
The students who built this very Estonian sauna actually came here from all around the world: Fernanda Cabezas, Marie-Elise Chhabra, Fergal Clenaghan, Rasmus Exo, Sigrun Perla Gisladottir, Eetu Hyvönen, Zane Kalnina, Alexander Kamelhair, Laura Lammert, Johanne Kirketerp Nielsen, Sonia Sobrino Ralston, Lukas Scheidegger, Liina Soosaar, Gudmar Söderin, Asia Valencic, and Wenzel Witt-Dörring.
Many of the pictures in this article were taken by Mari Hunt.
Thanks for reading
This Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam.
You can follow our own adventures exploring Estonian sauna culture and helping fill the world with more saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. We also have a Facebook group for Sauna explorers / Sauna avastajad.
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