As temperatures plunge and War and Peace rampages across our TV screens, an invitation to enjoy a swanky new Russian Banya arrives on my desk. It’s the latest spa craze, and at the exclusive South Kensington Club – one small concern that it involves being spanked with twigs aside, of course I’ll go!
The SKC takes up a few Stucco fronted town houses on Harrington Street. Ladies draped in cashmere look down their noses at other ladies draped in cashmere. The receptionist, however, is friendly, and leads me through a warren of elegant cream rooms to the bijou changing area.
After I’ve slipped on my SKC robe, flip flops and grabbed a towel, I head up some winding stairs, to the Bath House, where I am met by three muscly chaps in swimming trunks. I don’t know whether to be thrilled or worried.
My therapist (or ‘banschik’) Eugene is from Russia, and looks very serious even when wearing a dinky Bavarian-style hat and not much else. He leads me into the banya suite with a circular pool glowing in the middle. At one end is a log fire and chairs. To one side is a plunge pool and at the back four wooden doors that each lead to a shower, a steamy treatment room, a hammam, and a black wooden sauna with a brick oven. This is the banya.
It’s not as hot or dry as a sauna, indeed it feels quite pleasant. What’s all the fuss about? I wonder. A semi-naked Latvian called German ladles spring water onto hot coals. Eugene gives me a white felt bonnet and invites me to lie down on a towel cloth and relax. He returns moments later clutching two large bunches of fragrant oak leaves (venik) like a rugged folklore cheerleader.
Before I can think “What the…?” he starts pummelling my body with them. The whirring wet leaves create an intense steamy heat that builds up quickly and is slapped back into my skin. It’s not burning and feels pleasant, but after about ten minutes my body decides I might be in some kind of danger and presses my internal panic button. “Can I get out now?” I say, trying to sound casual. Eugene, who has been whipping my feet, says “one minute!” and leaves the room.
(Later, when I see him staggering out of the sauna after spanking another client, I see why he needs the minute. He looks like he’s on the verge of collapse).
He returns and gently, carefully leads me out of the banya. I'd assumed Eugene was my new friend, but he places me under an icy bucket shower, then dunks me in the freezing plunge pool. Finally, I am led to the nice pool in the middle, where I sit sipping water and start to feel normal – as normal as one can feel in one’s own private pool, being tended to by hunky men in swimming trunks. Normal for Cleopatra maybe.
“I feel very strange,” I tell Eugene. I actually feel drugged.
He nods, and tells me that's how I should be feeling. My circulation is pounding, my immune system is in full battle mode, and I am freaking out because I am experiencing something new. This is all fantastic. Tonight I will sleep deeply, tomorrow I will wake up with no stress and skin like a baby.
I am led out of the pool to sit by the fire wrapped in soft towels. An elegant girl brings me some herbal tea with honey and lemon.
I assumed banya would be a male thing: it seems so macho. I can see Putin having torso competitions with his banya buddies. Tolstoy would probably love it, although he’d no doubt prefer to flagellate himself.
But Eugene tells me that most of their clients are groups of women. He tells me that one woman came with her husband, but he was too afraid to try it.
It’s off to the banya again for another round: only the second time is enjoyable, even if I do have to stifle a fit of the giggles. The third semi-naked man – I didn’t get his name – showers and plunges me, then tips a bucket of ice over my head. By now I must look like a newly hatched chicken, all pink with crazy hair. I forgot to take off my eyeliner too. But I feel crazy happy. This is fun! I want to go again.
However, my “parenie” treatment is now over. I am now led to a marble slab in a mild steam room, where German (right) slathers me all over in honey and salt and massages my limbs and back. It’s divine. After, he leads me to the tiled hammam, and leaves me for a few minutes, before rinsing off the scrub.
I emerge feeling warm and dazed. Eugene leads me to another room. “You will sleep for 15 minutes,” he suggests/orders. Although the chair and stool are soft and I am wrapped up in towels like a Russian doll, I can’t sleep. Apparently Russians must find disco music relaxing because that’s what they’re playing. I do feel soporifically relaxed/stunned.
Eugene was pretty much right about the effects of the treatment. My skin feels baby-soft, only a few hints of light whipping around the top of my thighs (something I shall have fun explaining to Mr Spa Spy). I nearly fall asleep on the train home, and that night get a full, deep, miraculous eight hours.
At £180 an hour for a private suite (£50 if you know a member), I'm not sure I can quite afford a Banya addiction, but I would love to go again.