I was once told that the point of Russian Banya: to achieve true rejuvenation one must experience near fatality. For those of you out there who have ever taken part in a traditional Russian banya, you know what I am talking about…..
My first banya (what we call sauna) experience was many years ago on my first trip to Russia. I was staying at the home of our exchange student and they had a banya in their house. Strangely enough, I never went to the banya the whole year I lived in Saint Petersburg as a student and I regret that now because I discovered a little gem this past June when I was revisiting my favorite city.
For those of you ladies who may be traveling to Saint Petersburg in the near future and want a unique experience that dates back to the era of the Tsars, I give you communal banya! I discovered the Sputnik website last year in December and was happy to find a welcoming list of activities for tourists who want to discover things in Russian cities that are off the beaten path….. one of the excursions was to a communal banya, which immediately sparked my interest. So when we planned our trip to Saint Petersburg for June, I contacted Sasha (Alexandra) and arranged a time to go to the sauna with her.
Russian banya is a longstanding tradition and part of Russian culture. It is a means of socializing with others while enjoying the health benefits associated with banya. Women go to banya with other women and men with men – you can, of course, reserve a private banya for a party or family event, but traditionally it is separated. Sasha told me that she couldn’t understand the Russian male tradition of going to banya and drinking vodka because it seemed a bit counterproductive – not to mention the rise in blood pressure that takes place from the steam room alone. I couldn’t understand the concept of drinking tea (Russians love tea) after a round of banya because you sweat so much in the steam room that all I wanted was water water and more water!
Communal banya differs from private Russian banya in that it is a communal activity with people you don’t know (or perhaps you bring your friends if you want to socialize). Women have their own communal banyas and the men have theirs. Sasha, my wonderful hostess and Saint Petersburg local, discovered communal banya awhile back and became interested in finding all of the communal banyas in Saint Petersburg – there still remains a few. It is not as common as private banya, but it is very inexpensive and was originally created as a means for people to bathe and keep good hygiene during Tsarist times when water was not available in every home. The tradition has continued on and now it offers a very inexpensive way for one to enjoy the health and hygiene benefits of banya without the higher costs of private sauna.
Here’s how communal banya works. The cost is about 150 to 250 rubles (between $4 – $8, depending on the Ruble to dollar value) to enter the sauna and then you will need to purchase your own venik – traditionally they are birch or oak branches used for “massage” in the banya. If you sign up for the tour with Sasha (which I would recommend for any newbie), the venik are included in the price you pay her and then you just need to pay for your entrance. You will need a towel and flip flops (the Russians call them Vietnamki), shampoo, conditioner and soap, and any other toiletries you like to use post bathing. Leave your bathing suits at home, ladies – communal banya is in the nude and there is no shame in that bath house!
You have an hour and a half to be in the banya and once you are in your towel and sauna hat (provided by Sasha), the magic begins. I should add a note of warning: Russian banya is not for the faint of heart – seriously. It starts off easy and progresses to a level of sweat and tears. You go into a large concrete bath room full of stone benches and buckets for the venik. First, you must begin soaking the venik and then you go “relax” in the steam room for a bit (it’s a “dry” heat sauna). There are two sections of the communal sauna room – one is hot but bearable, the other takes your breath away. We began in the bearable half of the sauna and I immediately started sweating – I never cease to be amazed how Russian females rarely sweat when exposed to heat, considering they endure such cold winters….. must be all that dill. Anyhow, after a few minutes of intense dry heat, we left the steam room and went to the pool. The pool is essentially a large tub with a ladder – you climb up and jump into ice cold water to cool yourself off after steaming in the sauna. Then things step up a notch. Next round, you take your venik and go into the sauna, throw some water in the stove and proceed to sit in what feels like a really really hot oven – it’s painful and it stings. I had to cover my face so I could breathe. In the oven, you lie down on one of the benches and beat the other person with the water soaked venik – it feels really really wonderful and excruciatingly unpleasant at the same time. What can I say? Russia is full of paradoxes and banya is no acception.
Sasha was very kind to me – she noticed I was on the verge of passing out after only a few minutes and asked me if I needed a break. Yup! Back into the coolness of the water pool – that beautiful respite where your body revives itself from a point near death! After the extreme heat, a water break was in order. There was no tea drinking for me, just cold hydrating water! Following the water break, we repeated the said process for the next hour, only we didn’t go back to that friendly side of the sauna. We enjoyed regular water breaks and talked about Russian banya and language. There were not too many people in the banya, as it was summer time and communal banya is not as popular in the summer months as in the winter months. At the end of the oven-roasting-cold-water-jumping symphony, you take a shower and tidy up. And that is the Russian communal banya. A place where you check all shame at the doorstep and learn how to sweat like the best of them. It was funny – there was this young girl in the banya with her babushka and she kept showing us her arm muscles….. yeah, she was a tough one to bear with that heat at such a young age!
The whole process of Russian banya leaves you feeling refreshed and ready for a nap! It was such a great cultural experience and well worth every penny. Had I known about communal banya when I was living in Saint Petersburg, I would have gone regularly. If you are looking for a means of engaging with a local and seeing what real Russians do, I highly recommend this little excursion with Sasha – she was a great hostess and made the whole process very easy for me. A word of advice if you do decide to participate in Russian banya, whether communal or private – know your limits! It’s not uncommon for people to pass out in the heat of the sauna, so when your feeling like you just can’t take it any more, that’s probably a good time to beat the heat and jump into that mini pool….. Na zdorov’ye! (to your health!)
For a great Soviet movie featuring the banya: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073179/