My Banya Bonanza.
During my last trip to St Petersburg, I was lucky enough to experience first hand the Russian Banya. I was unsure at first but eventually, after some convincing from my veteran Banya-going friend from France, I decided to give it a try. A group of 6 of us from 5 different countries arrived at Vladimirskaya metro station and went straight to the shops to buy beer and snacks (My personal favourites being Baltika 7, dried calamari rings and anchovies). Following this, we entered the unassuming building and I saw that there were many floors, each housing a different method of relaxation, like massage rooms, whirlpools etc. After paying for a 2 hour slot, we rented some towels and flip flops and were on our way to the male designated floor. It was quite different to what I had expected! In most British saunas that I have been to, the towel stays on for the duration, you are given a private changing room and generally the whole thing is calm. But that is not the case in Russia... After the initial shock and realisation that the whole thing is done completely naked, I got into the swing of things, left my embarrassment at the door and proceeded to shower in preparation for the main event.
Nothing can prepare you however for the 100°C heat that hits you as you first go into the Banya. I took my seat and began to think, why am I doing this again? 5 minutes pass and it is now time to add more water on the stones; I didn't think it could get any hotter there but it did. Then a man stands up and everyone stoops lower on their benches, leaning forward with backs arched. I begin to think what is happening, but my friend sees me still upright and quickly tells me to copy everyone. Just as i lean forward, the man in the middle begins to violently swing his towel around his head as it gets yet even hotter, yes even hotter! The steam is pushed around the room and people are wincing left right and centre and my back feels like it is on fire. Yet as I raise my head, I see there is a small boy opposite, about 6 years old or so who is laughing! 5 more minutes go by and it is now time to exit the Banya and take a dip in the plunge pool, a chilly 3°C. There is also the option to have a giant bucket of equally icy water dumped on you, by pulling the chain connected to the bucket on the ceiling. Now you're thinking, this is going to be horrible but it is precisely the opposite. The relief it brings is quite indescribable.
Finishing with the pool, we head back to our private compartment where all our clothes, food and drink are and proceed to chat, drink and feast. You become surprisingly hungry throughout the whole ordeal! This entire process is repeated for the next 2 hours and once you leave, you feel as if both your body and soul have been cleansed! I must also add, that I have never slept as well as after returning from the Russian Banya! Needless to say, i will be going again and it is definitely worth experiencing this fun and strange tradition if you are ever in Russia.
General facts about Banya
One of the most famous traditional pastimes in Russia is to gather a group of friends and head to the bathhouse (баня). The Banya usually consists of either a small room or building where one can experience intense dry or wet heat intended to make you sweat heavily (the normal temperature in the hot room is around 100 degrees celcius!). With references of the Banya dating as far back as 945 AD, it is safe to say it has been an integral part of Russian culture for a long time. The Banya can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the grand Sanduny Banya in Moscow, to the hiking banya (походная баня). However, the traditional Banya is normally a hut made of wood, which closely resembles a Finnish sauna cottage.
Once inside this cabin Banya, you will now be able to see if it is a Black Banya or a White Banya. The difference being that the Black Banya allows the smoke from the fire that heats the rocks to escape through an opening in the roof. This escaping smoke turns the walls of wooden cabin black, hence the term 'Black Banya'. In a white Banya, the smoke is let out through pipes, keeping the interior wood white! Simple as that!
Once the room has heated up sufficiently and after the initial shower, people will sit down or lie down if there is enough space, and begin the bathing ritual. Because of the heat in the room, it is wise to buy a special type of felt hat and mitts to protect yourself during the experience! After a small amount of water is poured onto the rocks, one can take their towel and swing it around their head to push the new steam about the room. Once 10 minutes or so has passed and people are sweating heavily, they will exit the room in order to dip themselves in ice cold water, such as a plunge pool. During the winter, sometimes holes are cut into frozen lakes for this! If there is no frozen lake in the area, rolling in snow without any clothes is also a valid option.
For the second round of sweating, it is traditional for people to take bunches of birch branches into the Banya called Veniki. These are then used to hit or massage yourself and others to promote blood circulation. Another important part of the Banya experience is to purchase drinks and food beforehand to keep you going. After every sweat session, the cooling off is repeated and it is customary to drink beer or vodka and eat various Russian snacks like dried fish, calamari rings and grenki during this period. The average time people spend repeating this order of this is 2 hours and once finished, you will come out feeling more relaxed than ever!