There’s a joke the Finns make about the Swedes: they call their saunas “warm rooms”. This is because the Finns aren’t very good at jokes. (Nobody, you’ll note, is insisting Mock the Week has at least one Finn on its panel every week.) It’s also because the Finns think a sauna should be hot. Really hot. Like 100C hot. But anything below 80C? Pah! That’sa Swedish sauna.
The Finns don’t have an equivalent joke about the Russians, which doesn’t seem particularly fair, given that the Russian version — the banya — is typically “only” 65C-70C. But Russians are more scary than Swedes, and the Finns may still be feeling a twinge of guilt about their hosting of the 2010 World Sauna Championships, when a Russian finalist, Vladimir Ladyzhensky, died after spending six minutes at 110C.
Though even Russia would draw the line at using a bathing contest as grounds for invasion, it’s certainly mighty proud of its banya culture. I learnt just how proud the hard way — the sweaty, nearly naked hard way — at Banya No 1, Britain’s only Russian bathhouse, which opened last year in a basement behind Old Street Tube station, in north London.
By this point, you’ll have seen the picture of me in my Speedos. Really sorry about that. But count yourself lucky: if I’d been doing things properly, like the home-counties expats who make up much of Banya No 1’s clientele, the trunks would have been off.
You’ll also have assumed that those two huge men holding branches are meting out some sort of corporal punishment, and that I’m being made to wear that hat as a final act of humiliation. Don’t let your prejudices get in the way. German and Gennady, though as unsmilingly gruff as you’d want your Russian banshiks to be, were gentle giants — and experts in the art of the venik. A venik is a bundle of twigs, juicy eucalyptus, wormwood, oak or birch, that not only smells nice, but is really good for wafting steam about.
For Russians, bath time is about the steam, not heat for heat’s sake. According to Andrei Fomin, Banya No 1’s owner, a dry Finnish sauna, with a humidity of less than 10%, has too little steam. The near-100%-humidity fog of Turkish or Moroccan hammams is too soggy. Banya steam, though, is just right, superheated by a 700C stove to create fine transparent droplets.
I’d been comfortable up to this point, slowly warming like a stroganoff in the oven. Then German and Gennady began waving their sticks about like Heathrow semaphorists, scooping the hottest strata of Russian magic steam down from the ceiling to fan it across my back. I don’t know what a Finn would have made of it, and I don’t care, because, gosh, this was now several notches above pleasantly toasty, slightly painful, even. As one pulse of heat faded, another would follow straight behind. Phew-ee.
After doing me on my front, they flipped me onto my back, then, to finish, sat me up, pulled my arms out to the sides and slapped birch leaves across my face. (The hat, if you’re still wondering, is made of felt, and was there to keep my head insulated and cool, not to make me look like a reject from a Stone Roses tribute band.)
They do other treatments at Banya No 1: various scrubs, washes, wraps, masks and massages, popular with the Russian mums who come in after the school run for the ladies-only sessions. But, despite the photographic evidence on this page, Banya No 1 is one macho place to wash. “It’s like a sport,” Andrei says, and by the end of my veniking, I was puffing hard.
In the banya, what gets hot must get cold again. Very cold. So, as I stepped free but dazed from the sweltering steam, German manhandled me into position against a wall and chucked two buckets of cold water over my head. I’d love to say that the squeal I let out in the video we filmed — think Victorian scullery maid surprised by a rat under a jelly mould — was just for the camera. I’d also love to say that I wasn’t sucking in my stomach. I can’t.
Next, to the plunge pool, up the steps, then down, dunking myself in 7C water. I re-emerged, tingling all over, head spinning, defeated, and all but collapsed into Gennady’s muscular embrace. He wrapped me in a bedsheet and plonked me down next door, in the lounge bar, where I was poured a glass of cold kvass (a mildly alcoholic cordial made from brown bread), and a hot tea brewed with thyme and fireweed. As I sipped, I slowly came to my senses. My breathing calmed. I felt wonderful: light, clean, wholesome, rejuvenated.
Now, if I were a proper Russian, I’d have headed back in and done the whole thing over again, five times or more, then hit the vodka and crayfish in the bar with my new-found oligarch buddies. But as a banya beginner, it was best to take it slow. I’ll be back, though, to prove myself to the Russians. They may have come to London and ruined English football and my chances of ever buying a flat — but they don’t half know how to scrub up well.