Finns visiting a sauna in Germany

Bademeister, mixed bathing and coloured lights. Finns are rather bemused by the German sauna culture.

I have lived in Germany for 11 years and have also visited the country many times - the local sauna customs have become familiar to me.  Initially I was on a mission. I thought that the Germans need to be taught the real Finnish sauna customs, sauna being our own institution after all. Over the years I have adopted a different approach. I study the local rules and depending on the circumstances, adapt these to suit me. 

My first test in a German sauna was that it was a mixed sauna. In Finland we are used to a strict segregation and the idea of sharing the sauna with strange naked men seemed impossible. I pursued my search for women-only sessions. However, often these would be scheduled for the middle of the work day when I was expected to work rather than enjoy a relaxing sauna.
After all, I yearned to get to a sauna - even if I had to share it with polar bears. My German husband had already for some time tried to convince me to go with him to the sauna he knew well. There the women’s session transpired to be just a small area reserved for women, all the other areas were mixed. With my husband by my side I ventured into the mixed sauna. The sight of the first naked man, stranger to me, nearly made me retreat back to the company of women. I decided to toughen up and stay there. 

Is it a sauna or ‘a sauna’

After some practise I learnt that a mixed sauna is not that different from the typical Finnish sauna. As a prerequisite it is probably a good idea to find a sauna which is frequented by couples or at least many other women. As the only woman in the company of an all male football team would most certainly be a very uncomfortable experience. In a strange place, one could conduct a small survey of the ‘quality’ of the sauna, by phoning them before the visit and ask about the provisions they have for a single woman visiting the sauna. In larger cities, unfortunately, there are also ‘saunas’, which are not the traditional type but places offering sex in exchange for money. The entrance fee is a good indicator: if the cost is in the 100s of euros and the payment method is either by Amex or Diner’s Club, the place is not likely to be a real sauna, despite its name.

Careful sweating in the sauna

Once you have made it all the way to the steam room, you need to learn the following new rules. Firstly, the towel when sat on needs to be big enough to enable you to have your feet on it, too. No perspiration is to drip onto the wooden benches. In most saunas, the bather is to be dry when entering the sauna steam room. As you are not often allowed to bring in a wet towel, you need to be prepared to pack two towels: one for sitting on in the sauna and the other for drying yourself. 
Before entering the sauna you are expected to wash yourself and your hair. In the steam room, the seating benches are at many varying heights. Some people ‘lounge’ at the lowest levels, just above the floor. I have seen people reading magazines in sauna, as some can find that the time passes slowly, especially in the low heat. There are hourglasses on the walls, which are flipped on entrance. Some people determine their time in the sauna by the minute. The initial guidance instructions have often become a compulsory ‘technique’.

Do not throw water yourself

You can rarely throw water onto the stones yourself, but there is a person employed to do this; the Bademeister. He arrives in the steam room at set times and as ritual throws 2-3 scoops water onto the stones. Water is often scented, for example, with pine needles, eucalyptus or oranges. 

Bademeister’s presence is an important sauna ritual 

There follows a stage, which is very amusing for the Finns, but is for the Germans quite a serious and important one - the"Bademeister" waving a large towel above his head, either in a circular motion or in a figure of eight. The idea is to increase the heat and waft the scented air around. Part of the etiquette is to quietly follow all this performance and at the end, softly mumble a ‘thank you’. Sometimes people also clap their hands. There is often a notice on the steam room door to warn people not to open the door during the water casting ritual. Thus, at the end of the Bademeister’s ritual, many people rush out with glowingly red skin. 

The water casting is a popular event. The steam room will be crammed full with bathers. I enter the sauna only when the others have run out. Then the sauna is nice and steamy and I get the room all for myself. 

Silence is golden in the German sauna

It is not appropriate to talk in the German sauna. Silence is a prerequisite for the enjoyment for the others. So, it may not be a good idea to go to a sauna with a friend whom you have not seen for a long time.

Cooling down between the sauna steam 

After your time in the steam room there follows the cooling down phase and there is a lot to choose from.  There are Kneipp-showers (cold water is run from a hose on the different parts of the body in a strict order; towards the heart and starting with the limbs first). There are shallow, paddling pools with either cold or warm water, cold plunge pools and in some of the bigger sauna complexes there even are snow caves. Extra fun is provided by self-filling buckets above the head height and with a pull on the string, the bucket will empty in one gush, like a waterfall. It is also nice to enjoy some fresh air and there are often fenced outside areas or balconies to facilitate this.  
Rest rooms for relaxing in

Between the visits to the steam room / or at the end of the visit a time is usually spent in the rest room. In this room, there are chairs, which can be tilted more or less horizontally, fresh air and soft blankets. Many doze off, others read or watch little fishes in aquariums, which they often have in the rest rooms.
You can take in some drinking water or alternatively you can wrap yourself in a towel or a dressing gown and go to the café for some salads, beer or wine, coffee, cakes, fruit muesli, etc. as your fancy takes you. 

From the hay saunas to coloured light saunas - there is a lot of choice

Although some German sauna customs are a little bemusing, I'm a bit envious of the Germans. In the larger German cities there are many public saunas. The biggest are like a world of saunas, containing some 8-10 different types of sauna. You should reserve at least three hours for your visit to enable you to try out some five to six different types. Some have rooms at 50 degrees Celcius, with alternating coloured lights. There are steam baths, which are either very hot and some not so hot and porcelain tiled rooms, which have heated surfaces for lounging on. 

I have visited a hay sauna where clay body treatment was applied on my whole body for the entire duration of sauna bath. I have visited saunas where the water casting has been automated: an impressive iron dome opens up and along a slowly tilting channel, water runs into the red hot gaping jaws. 

I recommend to all friends of sauna to bravely try the local establishments and keep an open mind. The experience will offer new dimensions to your enjoyment of sauna - and some really pleasurable and relaxing bathing moments. 

Written by Ritva Müller