After a day steaming in the sauna, rolling in the snow and being whipped by branches, Russians agree this relaxing experience will leave you feeling born again.
Whether you’re a seasoned expat in Russia or a newbie, there inevitably comes a dark, grey winter’s day when a certain unwelcome heaviness decides to make your shoulders and spirit its temporary home. Of course a -15 degree C day calls for red wine (vodka for the tough only) and comfort food, but Russians, like their neighbours in Finland, Sweden and Norway, have a healthier antidote to cold and misery: the Russian banya – bigger, stronger and occasionally crazier brother of the sauna as we know it.
The Russia banya or steam bath has been around for a very long time. In earlier times banyas in private homes were heated once a week to provide members of the household with a bathing day, but they also played a part in certain rituals. The night before and after a wedding, for example, bride and groom had to undergo separate ceremonial banyas.
Public banyas – still a popular destination in Russia today – might not be to the taste of those from more reserved cultures. If it isn’t something you’re accustomed to, the idea of sharing a public bath with multitudes of fairly uninhibited naked people can be rather unnerving.
The good news is that women and men no longer share the same baths, and even better news is that Russian banyas can be enjoyed in relative privacy because tourist companies offer the experience to visitors. In these cases, and especially in mixed-gender groups, bathing suit are worn by all.
Pain and gain the Russian way
The banya experience involves many steps. Your first destination, often after a quick shower, will be the steam room (parilka). Here a furnace is used to heat rocks onto which water is splashed in small amounts to obtain a light steam.
Sometimes a few drops of oil – eucalyptus or pine – are added to the water to create an aroma as steam is released. All modern banyas have different layouts, but in most cases the parilka can accommodate several people at a time and there are benches of varying heights against the walls.
The idea is to start the process on the lower benches, either by sitting or lying down, to get used to the heat. Only after a thorough warming should you venture to the higher benches where the real heat will hit you.
The next step involves the most indispensable element of the Russian banya – the venik, a bunch of thin birch or oak branches used for whipping one another. Banya visitors typically lie down on a bench on their stomachs and a second person beats their bodies with the venik. Bizarre yes, but in fact surprisingly pleasant. Russians firmly believe in the many advantages of receiving a good beating with a venik: from enhancing blood circulation and killing bacteria to inhibiting premature ageing of the skin.
The strangeness of the banya experience doesn’t end there. After your beating, and depending on the particular banya that is used, you’re supposed to dip in the iciest of pools imaginable. In winter you’re encouraged to roll in the snow outside.
Again, your first instinct may be that you couldn’t possibly survive this punishment, but apart from the strangeness of it all, the predominant feeling is exhilaration.
And if you thought it’s all finished at this stage, you’d be wrong. After your dip or a roll in the snow, you have to hurry back inside to repeat the whole process again. Some go through the cycle five to ten times in a couple of hours, but only if they’re seasoned banya users.
New energy and other (dubious) results
Once you’ve had enough, you’re guaranteed to feel re-energised (like a newborn, some locals swear). You might even find that you’re instantly smarter, perhaps more creative, but at the very least your head will spin, especially if your hosts serve you that ubiquitous glass of vodka or sweet champagne so favoured by Russians…
Moscow offers many options, of which these are a few:
The Sandunovsky Banya is one of the oldest, but there are many to explore – Pokrovsky Banya and Lefortovskaya Banya amongst others. It’s a good idea to look at a couple of websites to see what you should expect. Now all you have to do is round up a friend or two and pretend you’re not self-conscious.
Another highly recommended banya experience is part of a day trip to Sergiev Posad which also includes horse sledding in the forest and a traditional Russian meal. A great day out with friends. See www.pancake-hill.ru for more.
Janet Rogers / Expatica
Janet is a freelance writer who lived in Russia for 5 years. She’s recently moved to Portugal. You can follow her blog here.