Day 9: To birch or not to birch? Having a bath Russian style


Moscow is an amazing experience and there is so much I want to write about – the city, the sights, the experience, the Metro (yes, train spotters, I have another post with pictures on its way, all about public transport), comparing it with the last time I was here… but tonight, I’m going to talk about the banya.

It’s a sauna or steam bath and I found it very similar to the Finnish sauna, but in a rather nice old building in the centre of Moscow rather than in a hut in a forest outside Tampere (Finland).

The Sanduny Bath House is the oldest in Russia, founded in 1808 and the today still on the same design from 1896. There are three bath houses for men: second, first and top class; with two for women first and top class. More information about the bath house is available here.

I went to the top class version today (because first class was closed for cleaning – it’s the other way around tomorrow). I don’t know what the difference is between first and top class.

I paid 2700R (approx £34) and this gave me two hours of access to the steam room, a towel, a wrap, a pair of slippers and a felt cloche hat to protect my hair from the heat. It’s cheaper if you bring your own stuff. (You get to keep the hat and slippers, though I won’t be carting them along the Trans Siberian Express). Oh, and there’s tea – lots of tea.

So what’s it like?

The building is lovely and the changing/relaxing area very comfortable in a 19th century style.

As well as the changing package, I was handed a card leaflet that explains the banya process.

The idea is to repeat these steps over the course of the two hours. For me it worked out as three times through the sauna before a tea break, the bath house attendants managing the heat, the processes and the breaks.

Did I want the bath broom option?

I’ve heard about these. “A bath broom is typically made of the leaves of a tree or shrub which secretes aromatic oils. The leaves are dried and tied to a wooden handle. The broom is used to massage the bather’s skin and generate heat.”

Massage. Is that what we’re calling it?

When I travel, I usually end up trying the local sauna/bath house/massage experience. I tried a red wine barrel spa in Portugal, a Roman bath in Granada, went to a hammam in Morocco (getting scrubbed to within an inch of my life in the process before being wrapped in plastic then steamed) and I also was pummeled to a pulp in time to banging techno in Hungary.

I swear the masseuse was working to ‘big fish, little fish, cardboard box’. That was not the “luxury” massage I had been anticipating.

Returning to Moscow… No, I didn’t want the bath broom option and, frankly, I was relieved with my decision. Some experiences are better observed rather than lived.

I thought I enjoyed really hot steam rooms. I do, but certainly not to the same temperature as Russians.

The steam room had a raised floor, with ten steps leading up to it. If the door was left open, with air circulating, I could easily handle the heat.

When the attendant closed the door and started throwing water on the stones in the steam room oven tonreally build up a head of steam, I relegated myself to second step from the bottom. (Not quite the naughty step). I occasionally graduated to the fifth step, but never for long.

Meanwhile, up on the raised floor, the Russian women were lying on the floor wrapped in thick towels.

The steam was also scented with menthol – an odd though pleasant effect in the heat.

When the door was left open it was often because someone was having the bath broom experience.

A table is pulled to middle of the raised floor. The attendant starts gently brushing bather with two bath brooms. The action then becomes more vigorous and I can only describe it as ‘thrashing’, lightly and then more forcefully.

I can’t say that it looked or sounded like fun – but that’s just my opinion. There was a steady stream of women having this type of massage.

I was also distracted by the rhythm: da-dada-da-dah, da-dada-da-dah. While it certainly wasn’t techno, I was convinced it was the tune of: “who ateball the pies, who ate all the pies?”

Worth noting, if you’re planning to go, I think only the men’s sections have swimming pools. In the women’s section I visited there was one small plunge pool and two barrels of ice cold water to climb into.

Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. It’s a very traditional Russian experience and the staff at the Banya are great.

The sauna room attendants manage the heat, deliver the massages and ensure everyone is taking a regular break to drink tea. The staff in the changing/relaxing room explain the process and ensure the tea is kept topped up.

It was a thoroughly relaxing afternoon.

Tea! And the ginger, lemon and honey drink provided before you enter the steam room.
  • Featured photo: The Sanduny Baths, tucked away up a side street, the women’s bath houses to the right, the men’s (for the most part) to the left.
Categories: Russia, TravelTags: , , , , , ,

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