Banya No.1 is bringing the traditional Siberian spa experience to London, swapping candles and soothing music for cold water and hot leaves…
Being thwacked with bunches of wet oak leaves by huge Russian bears might not sound relaxing, but it is.
Banya No.1, tucked away on a quiet street in London’s Clerkenwell, is a spa with a difference.
A banya is the Siberian version of a sauna – but wetter and, for those used to the Scandinavian version, probably a little bit weirder.
The water is thrown on to hot stones, creating a hot and humid atmosphere somewhere between a sauna and a steam room.
The staff, or banschiki, are experts in the art of the parenie-venik massage. Some are even world champions – in Russia, performing this detoxifying, circulation-boosting spa treatment is a national sport.
Birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs are bunched into ‘veniks’ , which are then used in the massage.
The essential oils released by the leaves are said to help prevent premature ageing of the skin, and the steam (parenie) in the banya helps absorption and relieves muscle tension.
It is certainly bracing. I watched others be gently pummelled before taking my turn on the wooden bench, in full view of others in the banya.
I soon forgot my audience as I was enveloped in a steamy blur of fragrant, fluttering forestry.
The leaves are first doused in water, which heats up in the banya and feels pleasantly invigorating. My skin was tingling under the surprisingly soft touch of the Russian muscle men who perform the ritual.
Less relaxing was the shock of cold water as I was led from the steam room by the arm and held under a waterfall of freezing cold water in an involuntary ice bucket challenge, before being marched to the cold plunge pool for another submerging. Just in case any warmth remained in my blood.
It does leave you feeling very awake and alive – it’s impossible to be sluggish after being battered by hot leaves and dunked in cold water.
The staff are experts in the art of the parenie-venik massage.
Afterwards I tried the honey and salt scrub, which uses only those two ingredients to really get you glowing. The spa also offers massage treatments and mud wraps.
In breaks from the hot and cold rollercoaster, guests can pop across the corridor to the charming lounge room, serving a selection of herbal teas with honey, super-healthy beetroot juice and kvass, a natural fermented rye bread drink with honey and raisins.
And you can end your session with a tankard of beer and traditional Russian food including pickles, smoked tongue with horseradish and dried salted fish.
It’s all served in comfy wooden booths, one of which has spectacular snowy views from footage filmed from the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Weird but wonderful – like everything else at Banya No.1. Book your visit.
Prices start at £25 for a three-hour banya session, £25 for the parenie and £15 for the honey and salt scrub. See gobanya.co.uk.
By: Ella Buchan