Anyone who’s been following Girl on the River for a while will know I am a passionate convert to saunas and their beneficial effects, ever since I raced in Finland a couple of years ago and a lakeside sauna session transformed me from a wobbly, aching, potentially-injured mess to good as new. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for more authentic hot room experiences – all the more so since I was given the go-ahead by the lymphoedema service to sauna to my heart’s content post-mastectomy (hurrah!) So when I got the chance to try a morning at a traditional Russian banya – Banya No.1 – I leapt at the chance. I’ve been struggling with recovery after rowing and weights in the last month or two as my final cancer treatments are increasingly taking their toll on my body, so I wanted something that would give my tired muscles a boost. Banya No.1 did all that and more.
I’d been to a Russian banya once before, many years ago, but I was pregnant at the time so couldn’t go into the steam room and find out how it differed from a Finnish sauna. In common with my experience in Moscow, where the banya was in a dull-looking residential street in the Moscow suburbs, Banya No.1 is located in an unpreposessing estate in north London, but don’t let that put you off – if anything, it just makes it all the more authentic. I was greeted inside by a charming Russian receptionist who told me the timber for the wooden panelling came from the same region of Russia as she did, so I instantly felt I’d stumbled on the real deal. Somewhat to my relief, I didn’t see any sign of the terrifying high pressure hoses that provided entertainment in the Moscovan banya back in the day, but it did have everything I had hoped for.
You divide your time in the banya between the steam room (more akin in style to a sauna than the kind of steam room you find in a spa) and the lounge where you can order Russian food and snacks (I didn’t go for anything stronger than herbal tea, but you can opt for beer, vodka or kvass, if that’s your thing). Starting in the steam room, and wearing a fetching felt hat to protect your hair, you’ll notice it’s a bit different from a Finnish-style sauna. The temperature is lower and there’s a bit more steam in the air. The therapists will happily leave the door open for a minute or so and don’t stress about letting the heat out because once they throw water on the furnace, the steam that blasts out provides plenty of heat.
Next to the steam room is a thrillingly cold plunge pool and a row of wooden buckets mounted high on the wall which douse you in icy water at the tug of a rope.
All of which is great – really great, and incredibly invigorating – but what I was really there for was the parenie – the traditional massage with a fragrant bundle of birch, oak and eucalyptus twigs (called venik). I had pictured myself being whisked with something dry and scratchy and expected it to be a primarily exfoliating treatment, but it was quite different. What I hadn’t understood was that it’s really a thermal treatment, whose aim is to get your skin infused with steam so that it sweats profusely and to release the essential oils in the twigs. It’s designed to boost your circulation which should, in turn, relieve muscle tension, stress and joint pain, and the oils are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect – just what I needed.
You lie on a bench in the steam room (naked or in a bikini or trunks – your choice, unless it’s a mixed session in which case you must be clad. I went naked, because it felt silly to be all western and coy about it). You rest your head on a couple of bunches of twigs that have been soaked in hot water and are much softer than they look. The masseur (and yes, they were all male) performs an extraordinary ritual with two hot, soaked bunches of twigs, shaking them and waving them above his head to trap the steam in the air, before whisking them over your body, both front and back. At times he’ll press the twigs firmly against your feet or your back until you start to think you can’t take any more heat, before resuming the whisking and shimmering and swishing. At some point in the treatment the original masseur is replaced by another, who continues the ritual. Eventually you sit up and he works the twigs up and down your body before whacking you a few times with them. Finally, he escorts you outside to be doused in cold water, before a rest in the lounge.
It was an amazing, surreal, intense experience that left me buzzing. My senses felt heightened and my skin tingled and felt meltingly soft. I was treated to a brilliantly robust honey and salt scrub massage as well, this time by a female masseuse, which provided all the exfoliation I’d been expecting from the parenie.
Afterwards I felt relaxed to the point of exhaustion and slept the sleep of the innocent that night. My DOMS didn’t vanish entirely but the next day I felt refreshed and zingy. Interestingly, my resting heart rate came down that week and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the two things were connected.
So would I do it again? Yes, absolutely, in a heartbeat. I’m already trying to figure out when I can get back – this time hopefully with some girlfriends to make it even more fun.
Oh, and by the way. I didn’t look ANYTHING like these pictures of smooth-skinned, lithe millennials when I was at the banya. Here’s me wearing the felt hat and looking distinctly uncool.
Three hour packages at Banya No.1, including treatments, start at £95 which by London standards is astonishingly good value. I was lucky enough to be treated to my banya experience, but would gladly pay full whack for it. You can find all the details here.