Just recently, we reached a ten-year mark since the center was renovated and reopened under new ownership. While I cannot help but remember that ten years are just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 100 years since the center was first built in 1908, a lot has changed in these last ten years, both for Latvia as a country, and for us as a small business within it. This past decade has been generous with heartwarming memories and with trials and tribulations, largely because "Baltā pirts" does not consist of a building or its contents, but because our experience of it is shaped by each individual who visits here.
Among our clients, are not only affluent business people and members of parliament, but also those who have to save their santīmi, now euro cents, to afford a visit to our center. To my own surprise and delight, within our walls and almost without exception, people seem to get along with a healthy sense of humour, good-naturedness, and tolerance, despite very significant differences in political and religious views, ethnic backgrounds, wealth, etc. It is a completely different reality than the one described on the evening news or in our all too frequently yellow-tinged press. If someone arrives here high-strung and irritable, or dissatisfied with how the day has gone, they usually leave a few hours later with a cheerful "See you next time!" and a much more pleasant mood.
Mulling over the last ten years, I am left with a little bit of joy for all that we have accomplished, a few grams of nagging uneasiness about all of the things I wish we could have done better or faster, but most of all, gratitude to all of the people who have taken a liking to this little corner of the city that all of us have created, together. A heartfelt thanks to each person, who has lent a hand in helping us get this far, whether by being a hard-working employee or a loyal customer! As always, we'll be expecting you with a smile!
How it all started and who built the place...
For over 100 years now, since it was built in 1908, inhabitants of Rīga have known the building located at 71 Tallinas street as "Baltā pirts." It was built in 1908 by Hugo and Emma Lapiņš. Hugo's father, Rainis Lapiņš, a blacksmith by trade, owned two bathhouses nearby (one at the corner of Brīvības and Palīdzības streets, where the Laima chocolate factory store is now located, and the other near the corner of Tallinas and Tērbatas streets, which was later taken over by Rainis' oldest son, Hugo's older brother).
While still a student in Rīga, Hugo earned his living giving piano lessons, primarily to Russian aristocracy. Later, he followed in his family's footsteps and tried his hand at various business ideas in Rīga. After having travelled a bit with money earned... "importing" pelts from Russia, his attention fell on central America. In 1896, having hatched a few new business ideas, he left his newlywed wife Emma and one-year old son Hugo Jr. to move to Managua, Nicaragua. Two years later, after finding his footing, he invited them to join him there. Over his eight year stay in Nicaragua, he managed to found a small drug store, gain a position as an inspector/manager at one of the largest marketplaces in Managua, and eventually, to develop a coffee exporting business that exported to most of northern Europe. In 1906, he had acquired enough capital to return to Rīga and build two bathhouses, the first of which was Baltā Pirts, the second of which was known as Ziedoņdārza pirts, built six years later in 1914 and located at the edge of the Ziedoņdārzs park on Tallinas street.
In the beginning of the 20th century, many districts of Rīga consisted of apartment complexes that were furnished only with communal toilets. Locals often visited social baths regularly not only to bathe, but also to relax, to better their health, to socialize and discuss current events over tea. Until the early 40s, Baltā pirts served up to 2,000 people a day from four separate dressing room and sauna areas with dry and traditional saunas for men and women. Countless other services were offered as well, such as private baths (an old-fashioned version of the modern day spa), a cafe/restaurant, a full-service beauty salon, and a laundry washing service. A coffee roastery was located in the basement of the building, but was later shut down by the city because of permit problems.
In the early 1900s, there were approximately 17 public baths in Rīga. Many of the buildings were majestic, ornate examples of art deco architecture and design. The rooms of this building were tiled in marble, mosaic, wrought iron, and lacquered wood, with chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Two giant riveted iron water tanks in the attic were warmed with coal furnaces, each 3.5 meters in diameter and about 3 meters high, weighing about two tons each while still empty. WWII marked the end of this era, as most private property was repossessed by the state and many public buildings were looted and stripped of anything valuable, reducing most to bankruptcy or bare-bones functionality. After the ravages of WWII and under a government that garnered distaste for the excesses of the past, much of the social element and tradition that existed in the bathhouses was lost.
A hundred years later, although many preconceptions of the sauna have changed, it is still an indivisible part of Latvia's cultural heritage. From those that were still operational into the second world war, only Baltā pirts is still running. For a unique taste of the city's past and a peaceful place to relax, Balta pirts offers an unparalleled experience.
The Baltā pirts building and business have endured two world wars and four changes of government. After WWII, the business was run by the state cooperative "Varavīksne" until the early 90's. Baltā pirts was then re-acquired by Hugo Lapiņš granddaughter and has been run by her son since 2004. The majority of the building has now been renovated and refurbished and continues to offer people warmth and good health.
Traditionally in Latvia, on a newly-settled piece of land, the first building to be built was the sauna, or pirts. It came before the barn and before the main house. It was regarded as a place where one could cleanse not only the body but the spirit and was always kept clean.
People have been using some form of a sauna since ancient times. Steam baths were the cornerstone of Greco-Roman civilisation and for centuries the Native Americans purged their bodies of sickness in sweathouses across North America. Bathhouses were among the first buildings erected by the Ottoman Turks when they occupied Budapest and modern-day Finns would probably rather endure a life without alcohol than one without a good sauna.
Steam seems to have been an integral part of many cultures throughout history and the Latvians and their ancestors were no strangers to its 'magical' properties either. The pirts, as a sauna is known in Latvian, served not only as a washing facility and temporary smokehouse for meat and sausages, but also as a birthplace for many Latvian babies in years gone by. The warmest and cleanest structure on a Latvian farm was also the location where mother and baby celebrated the pirt??as ritual. Although we won't delve too deep into the pagan past, suffice it to say that it was the first time that mother and child washed together and symbolic acts were performed to ensure the health and prosperity of the two.
Today, in the sanitary, politically correct EU you'd probably have your child taken away for doing as the ancients did. To many Europeans accustomed to a day at a gym or a spa, a sauna now consists of a cedar or birch lined closet with a glass door and an electric stove with volcanic rocks inside. Although this watered-down experience is fine for most people, Northern Europeans like the Latvians will tell you that the real McCoy is much better.
A traditional sauna out in the countryside is usually a small wooden cabin with a dressing room on one side and the sauna on the other. A large wood-burning stove covered with large stones is stoked for several hours to bring the room to a respectable temperature, usually about 75 - 95C. A large metal pot filled with water is also left on the stove. Basins of cold spring or well water are later combined with the hot water to be used for washing. The cold water is also thrown on the burning rocks to create water vapour. The blast of hot steam usually sends greenhorns ducking for cover below the benches, but old hands simply close their eyes and let the steam engulf their bodies.
But hot air and water vapour are but a small part of the experience. Dried birch branches with their green leaves left intact are immersed in the hot water on the stove. Once removed, they are gently brushed over the rocks and then applied to the nearest naked person. Although everyone has their own technique, sauna enthusiasts generally take turns beating one another carefully avoiding the face and genitals. Extremists have even been known to add stinging nettles into the mix for extra 'pleasure.' Although it may sound like a horror show, it's actually not that different from a vigorous massage.
Naturally, human bodies weren't meant to endure such high temperatures for long stretches of time so sauna-goers periodically cool themselves down with a leap into the icy waters of a stream or pond. Sometimes, they even roll around in the snow for good measure. This cleans off most of the birch leaves and then the washing can begin. Although this activity isn't meant for people with heart conditions, the average person is left either invigorated or ready for a nap. Excessive alcohol use isn't encouraged before or after a sauna, but a cold local brew seems like a proper reward after a long battle with extremes of temperature and humidity.