While Mexicans use a pre-Hispanic temazcal (“house of heat”) constructed from volcanic rock to rid themselves of toxins, native Americans repurify in a sweat lodge. The Turkish make it a social affair in the hammam, whereas Celts favour a vapour bath. But in Russia, one can find merry banter, nakedness and the ritualistic flicking of birch branches in the steamy environs of a banya.
I’ve never tried the latter, but luckily for me, the first Russian bath and health spa, Banya No 1, has opened in London. With Russian Standard on tap, I can think of worse ways to while away the afternoon…
When I book the appointment, a Russian friend fills me in on the customs and etiquette. “You can’t go by yourself, you need company,” she says, adding, “of course, you’ll have to be naked.” When I tell her that a man will be performing the parenie venik massage (despite it being a female-only day), she is horrified. “Technically, it should be all women, never a mixed event,” she tells me. Oh well.
Russians affectionately refer to banya as their “first doctor” (vodka being the second, raw garlic the third), while venik – a leafy, fragrant bundle of birch, oak or eucalyptus twigs – is known as the “Tsar of the banya”. The massage strokes using the venik bundle are intended to boost the immune system and circulation, relieve muscle tension and stress, and intensify capillary activity and blood flow. Essential oils released by the venik are said to contain anti-inflammatory properties and prevent premature ageing of the skin. Apparently, when Apostle Andrew witnessed this treatment in Russia, he remarked that they lashed themselves so hard they “barely escaped alive”. I wonder if I should be scared.
I arrive at a modern-looking apartment block in Hoxton, the inside partially renovated. Signs point to a yoga studio, Yogadom, on the left, and to Banya No 1 on the right.
I sign a health form and make my way to the changing room, passing a resting area with luxurious booths in dark-green Chesterfield-esque leathers, oak wood, screens for privacy, chess tables, leather-bound menus and service buttons at each table. Natura Siberica cleansing soaps and body-butter products are available for purchase. It’s midday, midweek and the place is empty (peak times are after work and from Friday to Sunday).
Inside the wet area are two standard showers, two of the bucket variety, an ice plunge and a room with a tiled slab for vigorous soap massages. I also spot a dry treatment room.
I am guided through the process by Oleg, whose English is rather limited. We enter the banya (my bikini still on), and he gives me a traditional felt hat to protect my head. I lie down on the lower tier bench on my back and he pours hot water onto hot stones in a stove set into a red-brick structure. The room is hot, wet and steamy; it’s quite unlike a dry sauna. Humidity here is 60-70 per cent.
After five minutes I sit up, remove my hat, nip outside and submerge myself in the ice plunge – it feels shockingly invigorating. I pop back into the banya for a few more moments, but my throat starts tickling and Oleg tells me to go back to the lounge to drink tea for 10 minutes. I manage two more five-minute blasts in the banya, which I break up with more honey tea stops and icy plunges.
Oleg, who has stripped down to just a hat and a towel, is ready for my two-handed parenie venik massage (the usual four hands was deemed too vigorous for my first session). I lie face down on a treatment bed inside the banya, my head and feet resting on damp birch leaves, and deeply inhale a minty eucalyptus infusion.
Oleg starts by dripping droplets of water over my back, legs and shoulders using a bundle of stems and leaves held in each hand – I feel like I’m in a tropical rainforest. He lightly flutters the leaves, barely touching my skin, creating a flow of air that warms my body.
He draws long strokes with the bunch of leaves, from my neck to toes, then raises the venik up towards the ceiling (where the temperature is even warmer), shakes the leaves to trap the heat and beats them on my body. He then begins to lash my body with the leaves – it may sound violent, but initially it is actually rather relaxing.
I turn over and Oleg repeats the movements, first with me lying down, and then sitting up with my hands stretched out to the sides. The heat, combined with the vigorous lashing, does end up becoming quite claustrophobic, and though I answer Oleg with enthusiasm each time he asks if I’m OK, it is a little intense. After roughly 10 minutes it is over and I head for the door.
Oleg empties two buckets of cold water on my head and asks me in strained English to vocalise the shock as part of the purging process. I jump in the ice plunge for a final time then lie down in the lounge; Oleg carefully wraps my legs in a towel.
I relax for some time, sipping honey tea and feeling a little sleepy. There’s only one other person in the room, who is doing the same. Taking a look at the menu, I choose the speciality of the day, crayfish, along with some pancakes, red caviar, pickles and kvass – a fermented-grain drink recommended by my Russian chum.
By the time I leave an hour later, my eyes are sparkling and I feel relaxed, detoxed and energised.
The bottom line:
My trip to Banya No 1 was certainly memorable, and an experience that I’d recommend trying at least once. If you’re a first timer, the humidity and lashing can feel pretty intense, but it was nothing if not invigorating, and the environment was clean and chic.
Whether you call it sweat, sudar or ter, let’s toast to this haven of perspiring – na zdorov’ye!
Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, therapies and accommodation.