The Banya – Review by Yellow

Russian banya

Hardly a week goes by without another Russian themed pop-up event or exhibition appearing in my inbox; this is the problem with signing up to all these events websites, they start making you feel like you have to join in or you’re missing out.

If I had the time I could easily be at a different event, play, art and sculpture show, concert or film screening every night. Russians based in London love going out and their influence seems to be spreading out into lots of diverse and often slightly unexpected avenues.

For me this week’s big adventure, after returning from Moscow, was to amass enough courage to investigate London’s first real Russian Banya.

Unbelievably a collective of London based Russians have opened an authentic traditional Banya. It is important to make clear this is not a spa in the western sense, nor is it a finish sauna or a Turkish bath house. A Banya is a uniquely Eastern Slavic concept. Going to the Banya regularly is a traditional and very significant part of Russian culture. Long harsh winters are typically tempered by frequent spells of very high temperature steaming in wooden bath houses, beatings with young oak or birch twigs, scrubs with Baltic sea salts and honey from Vladivostock and sudden plunges in to arctic temperature water barrels.

All Banyas serve food and vodka. There is always a sort of side lounge where you can sit, wearing your towel or damp swimwear as you please, made of dark Siberian hardwoods and green leather panelling. You gather your friends, enemies and accomplices together to chew over the big business and politics of the day with vodka and pickled herring whilst wearing only your bath gear. Many an Oligarch-power-play are rumoured to have their beginnings in the Banyas of Moscow. Leaving aside the pickle and vodka lounge, the other unique experience is the Venik. In the simplest of terms this is best described as allowing yourself to be thoroughly beaten with twigs of oak leaves of varying maturity. This, apparently, relaxes, firms the skin and aids circulation, all at the same time.  It is also essential to have this beating in at least a 90 degree wet heat and the wearing of a close fitting conical wool hat is also essential to protect the head, allowing you to endure ever higher temperatures.  To complete this process you must then rapidly submerge yourself in a wooden plunge pool of water at near artic temperatures.

Whilst I was away on my various travels I never quite made it into any of the most famous banyas. I feared the language confusion whilst semi naked. I still regret this now.  It would have been wonderful to have seen inside some of these unique temples of steam, marble and Siberian timber. In Almaty, Kazakhstan, the beautiful Arasan Baths, a soviet construction of art deco pools and saunas, is a national monument. The historic Sanduny Baths in Moscow has been steaming since 1808 and is a stunningly beautiful collection of classic fluted columns and pools set in marble colonnades with oak plunge pools hidden in every corner. But Russia being Russia, women can only access a fraction of the facilities. Nonetheless, hundreds of years on intrigue, power games and history are entrenched in these intricate mosaics and columns.

London has to start somewhere, and the entrepreneurial people behind Banya No.1 took a basement venue, somewhat incongruously located under a block of flats hidden in an estate and lurking behind one of Islington’s most dilapidated thoroughfares.  It also happens to be on my daily commute, so it would be rude of me not to get the courage up to go. I need not have worried.  I will be back as soon as I can, I loved every minute of it.  It is a simple and pleasant place, designed to refresh and both stimulate and relax without pampering or fussing. I came out of it calm and physically soothed: a rarity for me.

It is not cheap but you have total control over the spending options. This is contrary to the typical central London luxury spa, where merely crossing the threshold in most cases tends to automatically attract a three figure price tag.  In Banya No.1 you pay £25 for a three hour slot. This gets you a leather and wood booth of your own, or for your friends. Some these can be screed off for privacy, should you have top secret discussions on the go. There are separate nights for women and men, which is traditional, but I quite like it. You can sit in your booth in your bikini (towels provided, but bring your own flipflops or slippers), drink tea and nip in and out of the wooden sauna, steam room and plunge pool. This includes your wool hat which is essential.  There is a steam room as well, with a marble slab.  If you can’t quite force yourself into the ice-cold plunge pool there are wall mounted and plumbed in oak buckets on a twine pull-rope. Close your eyes, breath in, pull the rope and you are drenched in ice cold water. I defy anyone, Siberian or not, not to squeal.  I did.

The wet area is managed and policed by Banschiki, Oleg, even on women only nights. He is as you would expect, about seven feet tall and three feet wide. He doesn’t speak too much English, in fact everyone there was Russian, which is to be expected. The manager and owner speak very good English and stay in reception. Oleg runs the stove, the twigs and is a trained masseur. He has a touch of Latvian armed forces about him, but is still quite sweet. You follow his rules; only ten minutes in the sauna at first, then rest and tea. Slippers on and off, and you must never forget your hat. Yet the design of the wet area means he never particularly feels very obstructive. In fact his presence is oddly reassuring. I ordered a chai and lemon and my booth was looked after by a discrete Russian woman who maintains a low profile. She has a juice bar and menu of pickles, dill, potato, herring and crayfish. It seems quite well chosen, small salty snacks and dark rye breads.  Interestingly the English translation doesn’t mention the beer and vodka available if you can read Cyrillic. There were only probably half a dozen women there, some in pairs, some on their own. One woman was working on a sketch book whilst sitting in a bikini, having tea and eating herring. Two other women had tea and spent at least an hour intensely discussing work and men in between twig beatings. The atmosphere is nice, relaxed and friendly.

The menu of available treatments is not extensive.  It is quite simple and well planned, and all treatments apply to both men and women, there is no waxing or fussing and painting of nails. It is all about mud, honey and salt and twigs. The key is doing all treatments in the heat of the sauna.  I went for a honey and salt scrub for £15. Oleg used molten hot honey in the sauna mixed with Baltic salt crystals and I was thoroughly scrubbed all over. It is a very vigorously pleasingly, almost painful manipulation but still a very sensory experience, I could smell and feel the ingredients. Those of a sensitive disposition might perhaps be better off going elsewhere though, it has a physicality beyond Thai or Swedish massage.  However, in the heat, the salt and honey seems to seep into the skin.  I still felt the softness for a couple of days.  You rest afterwards in the sauna with your head and feet in twigs for as long as you can bear the heat before you shower the mix off and go for the ice bath.

The atmosphere is quite congenial, I watched a fellow banya patron lay on the bench and receive her Venik whilst I steamed. It’s an elaborate waving, soaking and beating by Oleg armed with branches of leaves. I think I might try it when I next visit.  It is supposed to stimulate the nervous system and improve circulation.  The two women who spent their time gossiping and tea drinking had hired their own branches and beat each other fairly vigorously without Oleg’s assistance. You can then return to steaming, ice plunges, tea and chill-out tunes as you please until your time is up.

I like it very much, I felt relaxed and the hot steaming gave me a sense of cleansing not just physically, but mentally.  It seems to give you spiritual sense of balance and alignment.  I will return soon.

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