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.
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.
Not long afterwards, I tracked down the sauna with Anni Oviir and first wrote this article about it, which contained directions to help others find it.
Since then, I’ve occasionally wondered about the fate of that sauna. Has it been looked after by visitors or has it slowly deteriorated over time?
Then, out of the blue, I received an email recently from Jos and Epco — a Dutch couple who were visiting Estonia on holiday. They read my article, found the sauna, and reported back to me that it was even better than I described.
As it happens, students from the Estonian Academy of Arts had actually returned for another summer project to build a unique wooden Soohotell (bog hotel) next to the sauna, along with an eco toilet, woodstore, and firepit.
Just don’t expect room service.
Like the sauna, everything is free to use.
And as for the sauna itself, it’s been kept in perfect condition. They sent this photo to prove it:
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.
That’s why the sauna has been designed to float, and also why the new hotel is so tall with upper levels for sleeping. You can actually moor your boat or canoes against the hotel wall during this time.
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 was eager to make a return visit and see the changes for myself so I took my dad there on a roadtrip this weekend and can confirm that the sauna is better than ever.
You can watch the full video we made about our visit on our Estonian Saunas YouTube channel here:
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 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.
Finally, the Estonian Forest Management Centre has been responsible for keeping the area in great condition for visitors.
How to visit this Estonian sauna
If you’d like to find this Estonian sauna then drive into Soomaa national park from Pärnu or Viljandi and park up near Riisa. You should then follow the Raudna river eastwards. Make sure you walk along the south bank — and not along the road on the north bank unless you fancy an extra swim with all your stuff. You will soon find VALA near the start of Tõramaa river.
There’s always a chance that you have to share the sauna with other travellers. You may also meet the inhabitants of the area, which includes elk, deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, beavers… and bears.
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.