From Russia with love? Stylish Spy tries Russian Banya
From Siberian temperatures to cast iron stomachs (Vodka anyone?), the Russians are a hardy bunch. So when I was invited to try a Russian Banya – the newest spa craze to come out of the world’s largest country – I felt a little nervous. Would I be dunked in freezing cold water before being forced-fed beetroot, or challenged to a heated game of chess in a super hot sauna? Or would it be a pampering experience to remember? There was only one way to find out…
Located on London’s bustling, yet beautiful, Grosvenor Gardens, The Bathhouse has found its home in a handsome Georgian building with high ceilings, original cornices and chandelier lighting. So far, so London. One push of the heavy door, however, and the stark minimalist reception area – with its naked walls, absence of flowers/ candles and the ‘oh-so-quiet’ atmosphere - feels about as cosy as a trip to the dentist.
The receptionist was warm and friendly, however, heartily welcoming us before handing my willing friend and I a towel, a white sheet, an electronic locker key, a pair of flip flops and – rather oddly – a felt hat. She then led us to the small changing rooms and invited us to strip off – literally.
The horror on my friend’s face said it all – despite being ladies' day, we were going to wear our swimsuits under the white sheet. How very British. “If I had a body like that,” she whispered nodding towards a leggy lady with zero cellulite, “I’d happily be naked.” So would I, I thought. So would I.
Despite being called a Bathhouse, there is no bath to speak of – in fact, there’s very little water except for a cold plunge pool, three wooden buckets fixed high on a wall adorned with mosaics of naked ladies, and Victorian-style showers. With all this flesh on display – real and otherwise – it’s hard not to feel a little hot under the collar.
There’s more colour and personality in the lounge area, where guests go for cups of tea, lunch or a post-treatment drink. Retro Russian prints cover the walls; tan leather seating, 1920s-style pendant lighting and trunks of silver bark used as a room divider had me swooning.
On the menu: toasted garlic rye bread, salads cleverly stacked to look like slices of cake, salted herring, beetroot soup, fresh prawns, beer made from fermented rye bread and, of course, Vodka. There’s also black caviar and Bollinger Champagne for the well-heeled.
As drinking isn’t recommended before a treatment, we sipped several cups of chamomile tea and munched on Russian cookies before donning our felt hats and entering the first heat room: the Parilka.
Similar to a steam room but much larger (you could host a party in it) and hotter (72 degrees and counting), I felt grateful for the hat protecting my noggin. I braved a full three minutes before sprinting out like I was being chased by a dog, much to the amusement of my friend. One tug of the bucket outside and a ton of freezing cold water fell onto my head like a tsunami; the yelp could probably be heard from Russia.
Before trying the signature Parenie ritual, guests must rest in the lounge for 10 minutes until they are called in. I was grateful for the break.
When it was our turn, two semi-clad (and rather gorgeous) men wielding small bunches of birch, oak and eucalyptus leaves (called a venik) led us into a hot steam room and invited us to lie face down. One of the men poured water on hot coals to add steam to the room before closing the door.
Holding the veniks like pom poms, my therapist lifted a leg and shook one on on the bottom of my foot creating a rustling noise - it tickled. I thought I had managed to stifle a giggle when my friend snorted and we both cracked up. But heat has a way of making you feel sleepy and we soon fell silent.
The next 15 minutes were a blur: the rustle of the venik as it was moved up and down my body, the soft feel of the birch as it was placed on my back, and the realisation of being so hot I didn’t know whether to fall asleep or make a run for it.
Sensing my discomfort, my therapist dipped a venik in cold water, asked me to turn over and moved it across my face and chest in an attempt to cool me down. The treatment continued on my front with more rustling and shaking of the veniks, designed to push the heat from the air into the skin. Benefits include deep relaxation, improved circulation and immunity, detoxing and anti-ageing – quite a tall order for a small tree.
After 15 minutes, we were led out of the room to the water buckets, invited to put our hands on the wall and told to brace ourselves. This time the water felt delicious – and there was no yelping.
Next up: a dip in the plunge pool (below) where we were encouraged to dunk our heads under just once. God it was cold. Two minutes later, I felt more alert than I had in years – and like I could run a marathon (or at least for a bus).
“Well that did the trick,” said my friend referring to her post-football hangover which had miraculously vanished. “Can we come again?” If regular visits to a Russian Banya can make you look this youthful, I thought as another cellulite-free beauty sauntered past, then just try stopping me.
Standard packages, including use of the facilities and a 30-minute treatment of choice (wrap, scrub, soap massage or classic massage) cost £95 per person. Upgrade to Classic (£140) to add a Parenie ritual; Premium packages (£175) include a Parenie ritual and a second 30-minute treatment of choice. Each visit lasts three hours.