A banya is a Russian sauna. Taking a steam bath is one of Russia’s oldest traditions and its popularity shows no signs of waning. Visiting a bath house during your holiday is a great way of immersing yourself in Russian culture and will be one of the most memorable activities you experience during your trip. You’ll find them in cities and out in the villages; some Russians even have their own banya at their dacha or summer holiday home.
What’s a banya like?
A banya is often built out of wood, similar to the saunas frequented by their neighbours in Finland. Traditionally, heat was created using firewood, though these days you’ll find electricity used instead in some bath houses. Hot steam is created and permeates through the banya’s rooms. In them, benches line the walls at different heights. The higher up you sit, the hotter you’ll get. Once you’ve finished, you step outside the steam room and into a bath of cold water, but in winter when the snow covers the ground, you’ll find some hardy souls cooling off with the help of nature. Most Russians repeat this a few times to gain maximum benefit from the temperature changes.
Sounds fun. Do I need to take anything?
Most Russians use a bundle of twigs or branches, often from birch or oak trees, known as a venik, which can be obtained at the banya. It’s customary to dip the venik in cold water and then slap the wet branches over the body. You can ask for help with this from a banschik, but most people prefer to go as a group and let their friends do the job. Going to the banya is a very social experience, in any case. Russians love to go and hang out with friends and chat, conversing not only in the steam room but also in a break out room known as a predbannik which is cooler and a good place to sip herbal tea.
Is it good for me?
You’ll soon warm to the idea, if you’ll pardon the pun, when you learn of the many benefits a visit to the banya can bring. The hot steam is excellent for cleaning the skin and afterwards, it will feel really soft and smooth. Some even believe that toxins are expelled from the body with the sweat, helping the fight against potential ailments and others claim it is good for weight loss. An old Russian proverb sums it up thus:
“The day you spend in the banya is the day you do not age.” (В кото́рый день па́ришься, тот день не ста́ришься.) That’ll do me!