Washing your worries away

From the Japanese onsen to the Turkish hammam, humans have devised many marvellous ways to get clean. Latvians have been doing it for millennia in wood-fired bathhouses called pirts, and the tradition is the perfect antidote to stressful modern life.

The ritual of pouring hot water onto rocks to make steam, whipping oneself with leafy switches, then dipping into a pond is practised at farms around the country. And for connoisseurs who want to take the experience to the next level, every parish has a pirtnieks (or female pirtniece) dishing out sweat therapy.

Although reaching her involves a 200 km trek east of Riga, revered pirtniece Kristīne Šišlova tends to weary bodies and souls from all over Latvia and beyond. I’ve loved a cosy pirts ever since I moved to Latvia in the 1990s, and one recent Saturday I finally got to experience Kristīne’s tender blows.

Latvian sauna pirts
A warm countrywoman embracing life close to nature

After the clouds of dust on the gravel road from Līvāni, the nearest big town, “Vidussala” farm looks like an oasis, with lush, biologically diverse landscaping embracing an inviting pond with blooming water lilies. At first glance, Kristīne herself - blonde, barefoot, linen-clad with sparkling, kind blue-eyed - looks like an Earth Mother from central casting. A countrywoman through and through, she grew up on the ten-hectare property and sources much of her family’s food from its garden and forest. She is deeply rooted in the Latgale region, whose famous hospitality requires that “if a stranger knocks on your door, first you invite them to the table for a meal, and only afterwards ask what they want.”

This warmth draws pilgrims from every walk of life to “Vidussala,” who learn about this haven from 21st-century chaos almost entirely by word of mouth. Kristīne eschews advertising and doesn’t have a TV – there’s no time to sit around when there are besoms (slotiņas) to tie together (some 3,000 for the upcoming winter), bread to bake, acorns to husk and grind for jam or coffee…

The essential “pirts” experience

“Vidussala” boasts a “black” or “smoke” pirts, the most ancient type of bathhouse in Latgale, and Kristīne’s husband Aleksejs is building one from clay, a design similar to a bread oven that will be unique in Latvia. My session takes place in the “wet” pirts, the most common sort in Latvia. I’ve experienced wonderful baths elsewhere in Latvia, getting spanked with a potpourri of herbs then rubbed down with honey and strawberry rubdowns, but Kristīne sticks to the essentials. Several rounds of warming up, then a gentle beating with birch slotiņas. Then she floated me in her arms in the pond until I saw stars through my closed eyes. Finally, she laid me on a massage table, covered me with a linen cloth and performed a very light backrub.

There was a lot of conversation throughout, at odds with the notion that the sanctity of the pirts demands silence. “Therapist” Kristīne produced some astute psychological insights about her naked client, as well as some dishing out handy medical tips (resulting in me downing a tablespoon of cholesterol-reducing crushed dandelion stalks over dinner.)

People have reportedly quit smoking or curbed boozing after visiting this pirts. And I’m sure there are many like me who leave with a deep feeling of inner peace.

Latvian sauna pond

Philip Birzulis, 26.08.2020