We paid a visit to Banya No. 1 in London’s Hoxton to experience this traditional and much-loved Russian wellbeing therapy. Not for the faint-hearted, it takes a few moments to acclimatise both body and brain to the fiercely hot air and the slightly hysterical sight of a burly Russian chap, stripped to the waist save for a woollen cloche protecting his head from the heat, waving leaves at your naked frame.
One of the main rituals of a Banya treatment is the Parenie with a venik, a leafy, fragrant bundle of birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs. Lying on a tabletop inside the sauna room, the therapist (or banshik as he is known) starts by wafting hot air up and down the body before starting top-to-toe twig-whacking. The idea is to boost circulation and relieve muscle tension. First-timers will find it almost unbearably hot and almost certainly bizarre – but strangely liberating too.
At the end of this twig dance, you stagger out into the cool air – only to have a bucket of icy cold water thrown over you, before dunking into a freezing plunge pool. The contrast in temperatures is extreme, with the physical shock to the system releasing an adrenaline rush. If you’re lucky, you can add in a full-body exfoliation with sea salt and raw honey – leaving the skin sublimely soft. Repeat the sauna and plunge-pool process as many times as you feel like, retreating in between to the sanctuary of Banya’s cosy wooden café, to enjoy traditional Russian treats of fermented foods and drinks (or a fortifying vodka!).
We especially loved the homemade dumplings and kvass, a herbal ferment flavoured with beetroot or apple. Popular with hen parties and girlfriend groups, we can’t wait to go back.
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