Did you know the world’s biggest sauna is in Germany? It can be found in Sinsheim and has room for around 150 people. I would guess this is something like an insult to Finnish pride in their sauna culture, and so the Vapaateekkarit society at Aalto University decided to change this. For the week leading up to Vappu (the first of May and one of the most important holidays in Finland, especially for students. It’s indeed so important that they tend to start celebrating already a few weeks early) they simply set up a giant sauna on the University campus in Espoo. And it could fit double amount of people as the current record holder, although unfortunately it was only there for a week. The sauna was open 24 hours and entrance was free for everyone – of course we had to give it a try.
We went on a rather rainy and chilly evening, and the place was packed. We got changed in the large shipping containers that served as changing rooms and went to shower in the neighbouring shower containers. By the time we arrived the showers didn’t get warm (anymore?), so we might as well just have stayed out in the rain. We walked to the sauna over the wooden planks crossing ground that had turned into a swamp from thousands of wet feet and lots of rain. In front of the entrance, there was a huge towel rack, on which towels were already piled in multiples because it was so busy that night. Just as I put my towel there, the tent roof of the rack decided to relieve itself of a puddle of water onto my head. After the showers and walking around barefoot in the cold rain, I was pretty cold and really in need of the sauna.
We entered the huge tent that contained the sauna – although lighting, volume of the noise, and a disco ball on the ceiling made it feel more like a nightclub. Five rows of wooden benches stretched along the walls, the top 3 of them completely packed, bum on bum. In the middle of the room was a huge oven with someone throwing water on the hot stones almost continually. Still, the people around the sauna chanted “more steam, more steam, we need more steam”. The temperature difference between the bottom and top benches was very large, and only on the top benches it reached actual sauna temperature. I thought this was quite convenient, as it meant we could stay inside longer without having to cool down outside in the mud and rain, but Mr Always Right was still complaining about cold feet when we had already worked our way up to the middle bench. Not to mention that I am usually the one with cold feet while he is already wearing short sleevevs. The dress code was up to everyone individually: There was a smallish percentage of men who had come au naturel, but most of them and all of the women I could spot were wearing swimwear. Some also wore their Teekkarilakki, a kind of sailor-hat looking cap that the students get on their first Vappu at university and which is traditionally worn on Vappu (just like the similar looking Ylioppilaslakki, which all students receive when graduating from high school).
There was also a large empty space in the middle. A few people were sitting on the floor next to the oven and playing a board game (which was of course enhanced to a drinking game). On one end of the room a piano was waiting to discover new talents, but while now and again someone tried with one to three fingers to play a few notes, the general noise level meant that we were not able to hear anything. Some people were kicking a football around in the middle. Occasionally, it was kicked into the crowd on the benches or onto the poor piano too. At the back of the tent, there seemed to be something like a stage, as the sauna also had official music programme on some days. It was a rather surreal and very entertaining mix of things to have in a sauna, and the general feeling of the visit was that of a big, happy (,boozy) party.
Image courtesy of Vapaateekkarit / Mikko Autio.