A Russian banya is a sauna with a twist. There’s usually a collection of public saunas, baths, and a very unique practice of hitting each other with branches. A venik of dried white birch, oak or eucalyptus is whacked and smacked across naked bodies in a hot sauna, in order to improve heat transfer.
After the twig hitting, banya goers will jump into a freezing cold bath or roll around in the snow, before returning to the sauna to repeat the process all over again. Russians swear by banya, since the 12th century, for health and good skin.
While in Saint Petersburg, the cultural city of Russia, my friend and I decided to experience this quintessential part of Russian culture. Even though we did lots of online research, our hostel advised us about an authentic banya that real Russians enjoy—not a tourist trap.
We traveled to the outskirts of the city where we walked past towering apartment blocks and avoided slipping on the icy ground. The buildings were shabbier than central Saint Petersburg and it felt more like the impoverished Russian neighborhoods you’d normally see on TV. We were very happy because this was a good sign that we wouldn’t be going to an idealized version of a banya, but the real deal!
We bumped into a circular building that looked abandoned. There were missing bricks, steam coming from its chimneys and windows boarded up. Even though our map told us we were in the right place, we couldn’t believe that THIS was the local sauna.
Old women were selling venik outside and we watched people go in and out,so we took the chance and wandered on in. Inside looked like a community center and with no Russian alphabet reading ability, we followed an elderly lady who was holding a towel.
We approached the cashier desk to buy flogging branches and pay the entrance fee. One hours entrance and eucalyptus was roughly €15, but with no decent Russian we were unaware that there were already branches inside this sauna for use.
The kind lady gave us a tour despite the language difficulties. It felt very awkward to gawk at naked people steaming while we were in our thick winter coats, so we were eager to get undressed and start the relaxation time!
I was particularly excited to wear the cute, little felt hat that protected hair from drying out and controlled body temperature. I saw so many stock photographs of people enjoying banya wearing this hat that it was a must for my first time!
We were separated by gender but the official ‘flogger’—hired by the banya—was a macho, gold-chain wearing Russian man. He was wearing shorts(Adidas presumably), and the same felt hat as me, while every other woman was stark nude. He spoke no English but we understood by body language what he wanted us to do.
Personally, I couldn’t stand how hot it was! I knew that I hated saunas but I thought I was more resilient. One by one, we laid down on a scorching, wooden bench that was at the top of a raised platform(heat rises so the closer to the ceiling we were, the warmer).
The slightly intimidating—but friendly—Russian man started flogging me with the branches and I really didn’t like it. The leaves made my body feel even more unbearably hot, and the coarseness was unpleasant. Yelps of pain escaped my lips and he stopped prematurely. Thank goodness!
Suddenly, he urged me to come outside where he dunked a bucket of cold water all over me. The water was a shock. It was hard to gauge the correct temperature of the water since my body was considerably hot before. I knew it was freezing—and it WAS freezing—but it would of been a lot more awful if I hadn’t of been in the steam room.
Contrarily, my friend loved this place! She remarked how invigorated she felt and took some pleasure from the flogging. To her, it was like a deep massage. Maybe I’m just a baby…
We were impressed at how nonchalantly the ‘flogger man’ would go between steam rooms, casually jump into the cool down bath, and wear jewelry in a sauna. It’s a bizarre job but his skin must be as smooth as silk.
Our time ended and worried of facing a penalty, we dressed in the changing room. It was then that we noticed beer on sale. We should of brought towels but the hairdryer did an alright job.
It felt amazing to unwind between steams and connect with my friend. Although I hated the heat and hitting, we felt a weight lifted after leaving. A quaint grandma starting chatting to us in the little English she knew as we were leaving. Quite endearing.
The best advice is, if you don’t know what to do, just follow the locals!