Expert: Ganadi, a chap with 16 years’ experience of parenie venik massage.
Procedure: Russians refer to banya as their “first doctor” (vodka is the second, garlic the third). I am lying face down in birch leaves while a topless Russian man lashes my back with foliage that’s just come out of an oven. This is the Russian idea of relaxation.
Everyone must wear a towelling banya hat to protect their hair and help with the sweating. Most choose not to wear much else. When it gets too hot, there is an icy plunge pool.
Science: the temperature is never more than 80C. This is supposedly healthier than a conventional sauna, which can dehydrate the skin. In the bouquet there is eucalyptus, birch and oak, with essential oils designed to prevent premature ageing, and the venik treatment is designed to boost the immune system. Russians believe regular banya visits stop you getting cold.
Results: It’s incredibly invigorating. The heated leaves create a warm breeze and the hitting is not too bad — although I’m warned they’re going easy on me. Women can do the venik as well but beating in the 80-degree heat is very physically demanding. The lounge is full of people speaking Russian, planning to stay all day. I can see why they’d want to.