Finland has sauna, Turkey has hammam, and Russia's historic version of bath house/spa is called: banya. BestTrip.TV's Lynn Elmhirst went for a steam while filming in Moscow.
In Russia, the banya is a social as well as therapeutic undertaking; even today, a lot of business happens in the banya. And champions of Russia's version of the spa say it treats everything from hangovers, to circulation problems, to wrinkles... to lice!
We can’t verify all the therapeutic claims (lice!), but it is a great way to ‘immerse’ yourself in traditional and current Russian culture and lifestyle.
For the full out experience, our host suggested we try the stunning Sandunovsky Banya in Moscow’s old quarter, the oldest and most luxurious banya in Moscow. Picture it as having a bath in Versailles.
Sandunovsky Banya dates from when the 18th century had just come to a close, and the décor is like a museum or the setting of a fairytale ball: intense blues, curlicues, elaborate iron railings and gilding, chandeliers, and that’s just the lobby!
Public Men's Bathing Area
Bathers in the ‘public men’s bathing area’ get the real royal treatment: a cross between roman baths and a Tchaikovsky ballet, with columns and statues and stained glass and more gilding. This is where Moscow’s political and economic movers and shakers, celebs, and international VIPs sweat out the stress and seal deals.
Private suites sound swankier still. Actually they were built much more recently and look like your uncle’s 1970’s rec room with a sauna. Ironic hipster heaven if you take the vaguely vulgar art on the walls as tongue in cheek. As a mixed group of men and women (with video cameras!), we were installed in a private suite.
The Private Suites feel more like your uncle's 1970's rec room sauna
Male or female, public or private, the technique’s the same, and has been for centuries. To compare your international spa/bath house experiences: Russian Banya are both hot and wet. Finnish Saunas are hotter and dry. Turkish hamam are just as humid, but much cooler. In banya, you sweat it out in the hot, wet air that’s so intense you can barely draw a breath, and when you just. can't. take. it. anymore. you jump in the pool of really cold water (in the countryside, that would be a frozen lake with a hole cut in the ice) to snap you out of your stupor.
Here's the uniquely Russian twist: bathers use birch or oak branches in full leaf, soaked in cold water, to 'massage' (read: hit!) themselves or fellow bathers, to 'improve circulation'. (That’s why it’s important the branches have leaves, it hurts less!) We got a little carried away like kids in a snowball fight with the branches, chasing each other around smacking at each other. The private suite was a good call after all.
Sanduovsky Banya staff prepares oak-leafed branches in our Private Suite
Maybe we didn't take it as seriously as Russian traditionalists might have liked us, but what a fun and refreshing way to get a real taste for the daily lifestyle of real Russian people.