Looking for something completely different? Look no further. I have just discovered Banya No.1, a wonderful Russian bath and wellness spa that offers invigorating organic treatments like no other. If you like spa treatments in London, this is definitely one to check out.
Banya has been around for centuries and is very popular in Russian culture; you can find banyas in public bathing-houses in large cities and small towns, and Russian families who have summer cottages almost always build their own banyas there. It’s often a family or group activity, which frequently includes a post-treatment session eating traditional Russian fare such as dumplings or pickles, and drinking tea, beer or vodka.
Banya No.1 opened in 2012 – right now 45% of their clientele are Russian-speaking, and 55% come from everywhere else; so you can see it’s definitely very popular amongst Russians and non-Russians alike.
Banya No.1 has a public spa which is open to members and non-members, but for something a little special they have opened a private banya TAIGA, which offers a unique steam room and traditionally constructed log cabin (“SRUB”) constructed of Kelo timber with logs imported from Russia’s taiga. This private steam room is available for the Kate Moss’s, Justin Bieber’s (really!) and oligarchs of this world. Ideally suited for 8 -10 people – maximum 12 if you fancy getting really cosy – what a great way to impress your friends and family, and perfect for a hen/ stag do, or a birthday celebration.
In both the public and private spa, food and drinks are available to order. They serve a good variety of authentic Russian dishes, which can be washed down with a choice of herbal teas, beer, wine – and vodka, of course. I have to say, I was so hot during my visit that food was far from my mind… but once I stepped out into the cold autumnal air I felt ravenously hungry.
I had chosen to do my treatment on a women-only day, but they also do mixed-spa days. I arrived for my three-hour treatment with no idea of what was in store, but rather excited at the prospect. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and once I had changed into my swimwear (I made the mistake of bringing a one-piece swimsuit, but a bikini is much better for this treatment) and taken off all my jewellery (electronic lockers are provided) I was led through the process step by step. You are provided with a towel and a rather funny-looking wool hat that made me look a bit like a garden gnome; this you wear in the hot room to protect your head; it keeps your head dry and cool and prevents your hair from being damaged, so vanity must take a back seat here.
What is a Banya?
A banya has a special room where a large amount of steam is created with the help of hot water and air. It’s a bit like a sauna, but slightly cooler and the steam is much wetter, making it easier to bear, with the added benefit of being more hydrating and detoxifying. It is also much healthier because it won’t dry your throat out.
Built of wood, with wide wooden benches built up like steps, a classic banya is heated with firewood. You can sit or lie on the benches; the higher up you go, the hotter it gets. Here at Banya No.1 the staff come in and stoke the fire and wave branches infused with eucalyptus around your head creating a wonderfully refreshing aroma – and lots more heat!
I was advised to spend no more than 10 minutes at a time in the hot room, and once I was suitably hot, to leave and pour a large tub of cold water over my head before dipping in the freezing plunge-pool. In Siberia, it’s common to walk right out of the steam room and jump into the snow! It really does come as quite a shock to the system, but it helps boost your circulation. After my first initiation into the banya process, I was more than happy to go through to the relaxing café lounge area, to drink hot herbal tea and relax for fifteen to twenty minutes. This, I was advised, helps restore the body’s liquid balance after all the healthy sweating. After my rest, I was invited back in to repeat the process.
You can go to the banya just to enjoy the spa, but they also offer a range of different treatments. On my third return to the hot room, I had the Parenie massage.
The Parenie massage
The Parenie is stress-relieving thermal massage, which takes place in the steam room. The massage is given by a fully-trained Banshik, who brushes leafy bundles of oak twigs (called venik) infused with eucalyptus over the body. This heightens the banya experience by swooshing the steam across your skin and making you sweat profusely. It also stimulates blood circulation, improves metabolism and relieves stress-related muscle tension and joint pain. The essential oils released by Venik are said to boost the immune system, calm the nervous system, helping to reduce high blood pressure and preventing premature ageing. Well, what’s not to love? But I have to say it was quite overwhelming; the intense heat and strange sensation of been lightly beaten with twigs takes a little getting used to. A normal Parenie is done by one Banshik, but for a more intense experience, you can have two Banshiks – which I wouldn’t recommend on your first visit…That said, I did feel amazing afterwards and I spoke to a woman who swears by it, visiting for a treatment every week and enjoying parenie with two Banshiks.
Next, after a cool-down and more relaxation time I had:
The Honey and Salt Scrub
This was a heavenly way to finish off my session. For this scrub, you have to wear the ‘bare’ minimum and lie on a marble slab in a private room. My female therapist was lovely and professional and gave me an all over honey and salt scrub which cleansed, moisturised and detoxified whilst removing all the dead skin cells. It felt wonderfully nourishing and relaxing, gently cleansing my skin, while honey, vitamins and minerals moisturised and nourished.
After showering and enjoying a final cup of tea, I left all aglow. My skin felt soft and smooth, and I felt relaxed yet remarkably invigorated and rejuvenated. I noticed that my face retained a wonderful glow for a couple of days…
I might just have to go back!