While living in Moscow, and with the daily frenetic energy that defines this city, the banya offered me a space of reprieve and relaxation. When in Moscow, do as the Muscovites do – a banya is not to be missed!
My first visit to a hammam was much like most of my experiences with my Southern grandmas; welcoming, warm, and very nourishing. My visit to a Russian banya, was quite… well… the opposite.
While I definitely suggest visiting one, do not expect it to be like a bosomy hug from your
Southern grandma. Rather, imagine a very strict ballet choreographer shouting orders at you while you are thoroughly sweating.
There are two types bath experiences: private and public with separate rooms for women and men. If you would like to have an authentic experience, opt for the public baths. You will be led to a communal room where you can lounge between your ‘sweat and dunk’ and order cured meats of dubious origin, vodka and beer.
My visit to the banya was organized by a friend who had lived in Russia for quite some time. My fantasy of a banya was for it to be in a dacha, surrounded by trees and fresh air. Instead, we entered an ornate yet dilapidated building surround by some of the more colorful soviet era buildings. My fantasy started to crumble and I felt myself begin to cringe. But then I entered a Faberge egg of an interior. Brilliant blues, columns, and touches of gold. The visual aesthetics did nothing to dim the powerfully strict Russian attitude and orderliness of the day.
Before beginning the banya experience, I washed off in the communal showers. When going into the sauna, I chose (inadvertently, but very intelligently) the lowest bench to sit on. All around me, women were packed in like sardines. The door shut and we were told that we should not (read: not allowed to) leave until the full time was up. This is when I witnessed the strictness, the protocol, with which the experience is to be taken.
The lowest bench will be the most comfortable seat and the highest will be for those who are related to the minions in the underworld. I immediately began to sweat profusely. One woman tried to leave and was shouted at, loudly, in Russian. She most definitely did not leave, but returned to her place on the bench.
Once the amount of time had passed, a precise 15 minutes (though it felt like forever and a day), the door was opened and I staggered out. While the thought of it had earlier put me off, I immediately dunked myself in a freezing cold pool.
Fantastic! I felt refreshed and alive; like I could conquer the world!
To finalize this truly Russian experience, be sure to have a birch branch “massage”.
The only similarity this experience has to a scrubbing in an Arabic type of hammam is that it stimulates the skin and circulatory system. The scent of the birch branches is supposed to be refreshing and the skin is left tingling – I say that because this is the one part of the banya experience I did not have and still wish, to this day, that I had. Aiyana’s going in June and knows full well to do this and report back! (jealous much? me?!? nooooo)
After the “massage” relax, eat, drink, repeat!
- Usually, only Russian is spoken. At the time I went, I was lucky to go with friends who spoke Russian
- Take all jewelry off – it gets hot – really, really hot and metal on your body is uncomfortable/painful
- Cover your hair, bring a towel, flip flops, and a water bottle (see the site if you wish to rent these)
- As with all hammams and saunas, banyas do not permit cell phones in the bath area.
- Also, recommended by a Russian friend: http://www.baninapresne.ru/
Aeroflot is the Russian airlines to look in to, but most major airlines flies into Moscow. The Moscow Metro is extensive and inexpensive and a better choice in this traffic-jammed city.
Why travel there:
Moscow can be very overwhelming; English is not common, all of the signs are in Cyrillic, the traffic is horrible and the weather can off-putting not to mention the two minutes of sunlight that you get during much of the year. However, it is a culturally rich, museum filled, architecturally amazing experience to travel there.
The don’t miss list:
- Red Square
- St. Basil’s Cathedral
- Novodevichiy Convent
- The Kremlin
- Diamond Museum
- Spy Museum
- Izmailovsky Market
- Bolshoi Ballet (definitely be sure to see a performance)
- Museum of Cosmonautics (punctuated this with a visit to Laika Monument)
- Also, be sure to either use or tour the Moscow Metro with its the socialist art, propaganda tiles and beautiful stained glass.