The ritual of the Russian “Banya” was something I thought I could live without. However, I was persuaded otherwise. Following a motivational talking to and a pep talk to get over my bathing suit body issues from a very kind, yet matter of fact Bristolian buddy, I donned the ill-fitting cozzie, hiking boots and a towel (foxy!) and headed to the log cabin in the middle of the guest house.
Last one to arrive, as usual, I entered the tiny Hansel and Gretel style house, saw my fellow Banyans’ towels and flip flops in a line and went through the wooden door into a room laid out with tea cups and more towels. Hearing the giggles from within, I entered the sauna room to see our exuberant honcho, Costa, ladling more hot water onto the already scorching coals and my fellow travellers looking rather flushed.
For those who are unfamiliar with Russian sauna tradition (like me), it is a three step process and a weekly family retreat for those wealthy enough to have a Banya of their own. For others, commercial Banyas are very common and are said to boast a number of health benefits including improving circulation and cleansing pores.
First, we all sat around in the hot sauna at a temperature reaching 90 degrees celcius and when we could stand it no more we went back into the first room to let off some steam (quite literally) and, very red faced, we had a civilized cup of tea!
Once cooled to a normal body temperature, we returned to the sauna in an attempt to reach 100 degrees. Happy to escape the heat, we repeated the tea and cooling routine – very beetroot faced, sweaty and starting to feel a little faint!
The third session meant going back into the sauna with temperatures up to 110 degrees. This final stage of the process involved lying on your front on the roasting hot slats and being beaten with what looked like a discarded ChristmasTtree, repeatedly, after it had been dipped in hot water (this is called a venik and is actually Birch leaves and a softer pine, but I’d lost the ability to care by then). This apparently is good for circulation…it certainly brought a rush of blood! After working up the mother of all sweats we all ran outside and rolled around in the snow!
Flushed of toxins (some might say sanity) and smelling of pine needles and cut grass we headed inside for a gallon of water, a quick shower and a big feed, thoroughly exhilarated and cleansed to our cores…