This Winter has been disappointing, at least in the sense of not being cold enough. I had been looking forward to breaking ice on the lake at Bled, at least in one of the informal swims. There was snow, briefly, while swimming in Lake Bohinj, but otherwise there was sun, and very pleasant radiant warmth in the sunshine if not in the shade. This trip to Helsinki is very much about catching the last of Winter. And about Jaana urging that at lkeast one of my swims should be in Finland. After all, this country more-or-less invented Winter-swimming. Not that I needed persuading – Jaana was pushing against a creakingly open barn door. The last of Winter turns out, this March, to be a delight, even if the snow has mostly gone, the ice too. There was a pile of snow next to the outdoor ice-rink by the central train station, but beyond that, nothing. The first swim stop was to be Allas Sea Pools.
Allas, alas on a Saturday night, is a bit of a party bathing house. Pauline and I arrived in Helsinki that afternoon and headed for these central Helsinki bathing pools after the obligatory walk around the harbour and some of the older streets. The cathedral was beautiful, white, almost Russian-like, at the top of steep granite steps. It was white-protestant austere, and the square below, empty. I was reminded of the communal war-time stock-piling of wood (wood-piling?) in many Scandinavian towns and cities against the implending harsh winters. I saw a photograph of one of the each in the book ‘Scandinavian Way with Wood’ that Theresia Hofer lent me a few years ago (I gave it back). We were discussing our Saturday afternoon activities in the bike shop on Walton Street in Oxford, when, after saying that I would be cutting firewood,l she memorably said ‘oh how I miss my chain saw’. After lending and returning the book, a firewood-based relationship was established, which her being Norwegian, would be life-long.
So to Allas Sea Pools – well organised, beautiful buildings, excellent use of wood inside and out, electronic tags for the lockers, three saunas – women’s, men’s and mixed, naked, naked and clothed. Pauline and I changed and found the water, after talking with a man who had come across from Tallinn on a day-return ferry. He was swim-and-sauna-ing while his mates decided to watch from the comfort of the bar. This kind of summed it up – there were many Saturday night people who did the sauna and the bar, but not the cold water. Anne Katrine, who recommended the place, had similarly been here on a Saturday night and was disappointed in the number of people “who were not doing it properly”. The bright blue pool was as it appears in the brochures and tourist advertising – but was heated. I kind of felt disappointed, hoping as I was for an Icelandic Blue Lagoon kind of experience. The cold water – two degree Celsius – was a slightly longer walk along the deck. This was brown water, harbour water, which had the virtue of being very un-packed, because most people ‘were not doing it properly’. This didn’t bother Pauline or me, even in the packed sauna, packed with not proper people doing their Saturday night.
Allas mixed sauna was, when we first went in, standing room only. It was lively with the chat and chat-up of women and men mostly intheir twenties and thirties, steamy with sweat and water poured slowly on hot rocks – Loyly is the term for this, I learned. It was a bit like being in the pub, without clothes, although drinking was allowed. Sauna-lizards with prosecco glasses and beer bottles in hand lined the high back row seating in the sauna. After cooking ourselves in the sauna just long enough to find space on the top back row and turn a warm pink (not over-cooked), we returned to the cold brown pool for the second swim, shorter than the first. We passed the warm blue pool on the way back to the sauna, and felt this should be tried. Big mistake – my body prickled as I got in, and as the prickling-rash-like sensation subsided, the cold started to penetrate – the blue pool water wasn’t warm enough to counter the cold, except by vigorous swimming, and then not quite. This change from cold to hot water felt messed up, but reminded me of the experience in Banff last February, with the shift from minus twenty air to warm water feeling extreme, but better than not doing it and avoiding the cold outdoors altogether.
Back to the sauna, the oddly bar-room crush of cold-to-warm bodies shuffling up to accommodate people without rubbing up against them. I cooked a little more this time, to a deeper pink, then went back into the cold brown pool – from cold-brown to hot-and-steamy, my body was bright pink, but difficult to tell whether this was because I was cold or hot. My mind couldn’t tell either, as after three dips-and-saunas, from two Celsius to eighty Celsius and back and forth again, I was sauna-giddy. A pleasant feeling on its own, I cannot imagine being sauna-giddy and prosecco-tipsy together at the same time, I can’t imagine if this would feel better or worse. But at least it is legal.