Feeling the cold and doing everything in my power to strengthen my immune system, I am very keen to try out The Bath House, a Russian banya that has recently opened near Victoria Station. Located in a former bank, it blends the traditions of the authentic Russian banya with the best of the contemporary spa. Offering steam rooms, authentic treatments such as organic scrubs and wraps, as well as invigorating massage, it certainly sounds like the perfect antidote to intense, urban lifestyles.
The banya is an old Russian tradition with its origins in the woods. The banya was the heart of the village; an important institution where the whole village would assemble to wash together. A large wooden chamber was heated to a high temperature using a primitive wood-burning stove onto which water was thrown to generate steam. People would gather inside to sweat, wash and beat themselves with birch and oak branches. After steaming themselves in the bath house, they would rush out to swim in nearby lakes and rivers or dive into snowdrifts. After the intense heat of the steam rooms, the change in temperature would remove toxins from the body and bring a whole host of other health benefits.
With all this history in mind, my friend and I pop on our swimsuits and bravely prepare for the heat. We start in a relaxed way as we are shown to the comfortable lounge area where we sip water and the friendly staff explain the process. Next, we head into what is basically a large sauna, where the heat is higher than a normal sauna, but not quite as dry. We are asked to don some very stylish felt hats to prevent our hair from burning, so perhaps don’t do this on a first date! The heat is bearable and we chat away until suddenly it becomes too much –so, as instructed, we leave to take a room-temperature shower before repeating the process. We decrease the shower temperature each time, to make the extremes greater, until we are brave enough to stand under buckets of cold water which we unceremoniously dump on each other’s heads. The shock is more from the volume of water than the temperature (at 10 degrees it’s cold but bearable) yet we are still inordinately proud of ourselves for giving it a go.
After a very pleasant hour or so ducking in and out of the sauna, and drinking a delicious herbal tea mix of camomile, mint, fresh honey and lemon, we are ready for our ‘perenie’, a venik massage with a ‘broom’ made from birch leaves. We are led into a private banya where our banshiks are waiting. They are Russian men, in very small shorts and felt hats, who are brave enough and fit enough to work in sauna conditions for hours at a time. It’s a specialist skill and apparently one that women never undertake, so no point asking for a female therapist here! They throw water on the stove to achieve the optimum temperature and humidity and then use supple, soaked birch leaf veniks to capture the steam, driving it onto and massaging our bodies. It’s a much damper heat than in the sauna and we have birch leaves dipped in cold water placed onto our heads to keep us cool. It’s like lying down in a forest on a hot summer’s day and surprisingly relaxing. It’s quite hard not to giggle at the thought of it, but knowing that it promotes weight loss, removes harmful toxins, rejuvenates the skin and improves the metabolism means we are very on board with the whole concept.
After about 15 minutes (actually, we lose all sense of time, so don’t quote me on that), we are led back to have a final bucket of water poured on us, followed by a dip in an ice-cold plunge pool. I’m not a fan of putting my head under water, so I’m a little apprehensive, but on being told that I need to do it to cool my body temperature down, I hold my nose and go under, emerging to a round of applause from the felt hat-wearing men!
A glass of cool water and blissful hot shower later and we are feeling rejuvenated and refreshed. A lovely afternoon with huge health benefits offering the chance to catch up in a way usually saved for an evening of gin and tonics. Definitely a tonic in this current climate, the experience would make a great gift for a good friend or partner. And let’s not forget that Mother’s Day is just around the corner.
Prices start from £55. 1 Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria, SW1W 0BD, 0203 906 2060 (russianbanya.co.uk)