I will admit to a little trepidation visiting Banya No.1 for the first time.
Images of the near freezing plunge pool haunted me as we arrived, while thoughts of the banya staff (banschiki) lashing my skin with birch branches were also a cause for concern.
I could not have been more wrong.
This is a place of relaxation; a temple to the body, mind, and, not least, stomach.
Common across much of Eastern Europe and especially Russia, banya is a mixture of social club, wellness spa and high-end canteen, offering a chance to catch up with loved ones, shake on business deals and enjoy a fine meal.
Still relatively novel here in the UK, banya is centred on venik massage (parenie), a kind of traditional treatment where steam is kneaded into the skin using oak leaves, exfoliating the pores.
Complemented with massage, skin scrubs and a dip in the plunge pool, the experience leaves guests feeling revitalised.
Preparations inside the banya
I had signed up for parenie and a coffee scrub. But first, drinks.
From the quietly bubbling fountains in the entrance, to the dark green leather seating and discreet staff, Banya No.1 exudes casual sophistication.
The leather bound menu is no different, offering a choice of fresh home-grown salads, seafood and caviar, as well as kvass (a fermented grain drink popular in Russia), vodka, and a range of beers. Cows tongue is also on offer for the more adventurous.
Settling for herbal tea, I prepare for the next steps.
First are a few minutes in the banya itself.
While similar in appearance to a Scandinavian sauna, banya is a great deal healthier.
The quality of the experience relies heavily on the stove, with water thrown onto extremely hot stones to provide the ideal balance of heat and humidity.
The stove at Banya No.1 includes over a tonne of cast-iron metal, with water fairly exploding on impact and rising as steam instantly.
This means, at 70 per cent humidity, banya it will not dry you out, instead exceptionally small droplets of water work to enhance the purification of the skin, while aiding relaxation.
Parenie is at the heart of the banya experience
Five minutes is enough to drive the uninitiated back to the comfort of the lounge, but experienced users sit for longer.
Felt hats are also required to protect your head, while sitting higher in the banya adds heat, withsteam rising from the stove to the top of the room.
Leaving the banya, my guide Oleg requests I stand to one side before tipping a bucket of freezing water directly onto my head. “Good for the circulation,” he explains.
A few moments of recovery in the lounge and it is time for parenie.
What I had feared to be form of ritualistic flagellation is actually a deeply relaxing massage.
Expertly handled bunches of oak leaves trap steam from the banya, rubbing it into the skin. As the temperature rises, blood vessels expand and pressure drops, relaxing the body.
With your head also resting on a bundle of oak leaves, it is a uniquely agreeable experience, over all too quickly.
Plunging into the pool – which at ten degrees is actually far above freezing – immediately afterward is also surprisingly refreshing. Here blood vessels contract as pressure rises once again, making banya a form of cardiovascular exercise.
Skin scrubs at Banya No.1 in London
The final stage is a skin scrub.
Here I will say, while in London, this is definitely a Russian experience.
Although Oleg is never anything except immaculately polite, the massage is far from delicate, potentially jarring with English sensibilities.
Trunks come off as the coarse coffee scrub is rubbed briskly all over the skin before being allowed to rest for a few moments.
A quick hosing down and it is back into the sanctuary of the lounge once more. One of the more intimate experiences of my life.
Fine dining also plays a central role in the banya experience
Back in the lounge it is time to reflect.
Opened early last year, banya is largely aimed at wealthy Russians who work in the Square Mile.
Many visit during their lunch breaks, staying for an hour before returning to the rigors of work.
But one of the wonderful things about banya is it allows guests to do things at their own pace. Although bookings are advised, the structure of the day is not rigid.
Guests move to and from the banya at their leisure, sometimes spending an entire day flitting between the lounge and the range of treatments on offer.
As owner Andrei Fomin jokes with me, it is also the ideal place to work off a hangover.
Although with a bottle of Russian Standard also on offer at a reasonable price, it might just be the place to start the process all over again.
Read full article here