Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russian Banya (But Where Afraid to Ask)

First, I cannot say enough good things about Larissa of  Charisma Travel. The woman is completely out of control, and I mean this in the best possible sense. I want to hang out with her. My Hungarian friend recommended her after going on a backstage tour at the Bolshoi (something I am going to do next month). Larissa was also the one who arranged the MOSFilm tour.

Today, she took us to the Sanduny Banya. There are some good articles about this banya here, here, and here. Good video here. The official website is here. If you don't read Russian, scroll D-O-W-N and click on the UK flag for English. It's sort of a Google translation, so things come out goofy, but you get the idea. I recommend clicking on the video: it's about the restaurant, but even if you don't speak Russian, you will get a sense of typical Russian cuisine. And some good shots of the men's lounging area. Much better than I was able to do with my piddly camera. You don't have to sit through the whole thing (it's long at ten minutes), but do have a look.

The Sanduny banya dates from 1808 and not only is it quite old and very highly regarded, but it was the first banya to be constructed of something other than wood. Moscow was not even the capital of Russia when it was built. Lots of famous artists and writers have come to this banya. Mayakovsky even has his own bench.

Our tour opened with shots of some sort of  liqueur  (lemon and cranberry flavor). "To make the tour go more merry," Larissa explained.

I had the lemon one. It was good.

We spent most of the tour in the higher-end men's section (since it was closed to customers on Tuesdays), so all my photos are from there. The sexes are divided and each has an up-scale banya and an economy-level banya.

First, we saw the upscale men's changing room. You get naked, you get your sheet, and you hang out here.

Hard to tell from my photo, but in the videos and other sites, you can see that this is a very elegant room with leather seats. You hang out here between rounds in the steam room, drinking tea (or stronger stuff if you are a man . . . they don't sell alcohol on the women's side), chatting, or conducting business. There's a lot more to banya than just getting clean.

You need to go into the steam room at least five times (or until your flesh becomes blotchy . . . "like Japanese beef" says Larissa). In between, you hang out. For every minute in the steam room, you chill for at least three. So five minutes in the steam = fifteen minutes chilling.

Here is a sign that explains how long you can expect to wait for various items you may want to order while you are chilling. Just so you know how long you can hang out in the steam room. All menu items here are made-to-order.

Cold menu items . . . 15-25 minutes
Salads . . . 20-30 minutes
Warm menu items . . . 25-30 minutes
Soups . . . 20-30 minutes
Main dishes (I think . . . I'm just guessing here . . . tell me if I'm wrong) . . . 25-45 minutes
Desserts . . . 25-30 minutes

Did I forget to mention that banya is a three-hour event. Minimum. It will set you back about 1000 rubles or $33US, depend on whether you want the First Class/Upscale banya or Economy . . . not counting rental for your sheet, slippers, towel, banya hat, and beverage which can be had for another 860 rubles or $28.50US . . . I don't know what the birch/oak branches run. Banya is like bread to the Russians. You can't mess with the prices very much or there will be riots in the streets.

Here is the Sanduny Banya Wall of Fame.

Russians will know all these people. Here they are, hanging out in their sheets and sweating.

Here is a banya hat. It is made of felt. You must wear it or the heat will damage your hair. Or so they tell me. I have, apparently, been doing the sauna/banya thing all wrong at my gym. I never see anyone in these hats (which, conveniently, can also hold cold water that you then pour over your head), but I do see most women wrapping a towel around their heads. 

You have to take one of these plastic tubs.

You wash it out with soap and hot water here, so it only has YOUR germs.

Be careful: the water pressure is quite strong.

You fill it with cold water and put your leaves in it to soak for 30 minutes while you go into the steam room.

These are oak leaves. They are good for problem skin. Like mine. 

You must hold them with the white gloves because the water that remains on the leaves can become really hot in the steam room. You could get burned.

You can hire an expert to beat you with the leaves. They use the branches to push the steam closer to your body and to hold it over areas where you might be having problems. They will know you are done when you scream. Or so Larissa tells me.

Oh, and by the way, never go into the steam room wet. The drops of water on your skin will quickly rise to the temperature of the atmosphere and could burn you. Sit on your sheet in the steam room: the benches will be hot and fry your goodies otherwise. Plus, you need the sheet to blot your sweat.

It is important to duck as you enter the steam room until you figure out how hot it is. This will keep you from singeing your eyebrows or worse. Oh, and enter QUICKLY. Don't let the steam out the door or the others will yell at you. 

Here is a steam room.

The higher you sit, the hotter it gets. Try to restrict your movements. It's hot in there, and moving will just make you more tired and dizzy. And do NOT sit on the steps. Dizzy people fleeing the steam room will trip on you.

In the women's steam room, there is a sign reminding you NOT to enter with lotions and potions on your skin. Salt and honey. That's all you can use in the steam room. First use the salt as a scrub to open your pores. Then smear yourself with honey. Not only does honey have healing properties for your skin, it will also make you sweat more, purging you of toxins.

The first time you go into the steam room, you probably won't last very long. Just a few minutes. Then come out and douse yourself in icy water from these buckets.

Or hop in one of these tubs of cold water.

Repeat until you resemble Kobe steak. Oh, and do not wash with soap until you are finished. The soap strips your skin of oils. You need those oils to protect you from the heat. Bring along some sort of baby soap. That's all you need. But not until you have been through the cycle at least five times.

You might have a massage on one of these benches.

Or, if you are Russian, your friend will scrub you here with a loofa.

Finally, you can take a dip in the pool if you want.

You can have a manicure or a pedicure, any sort of hair salon service, and, if I understood correctly, there is also a dry cleaners on the premises.

So who wants to go?


valentina said...

Wow! This is an amazing blog entry! So specific! Jeez, I don't know how you could remember all of these things if you went there! I would surely fry myself and my goodies...

How far is this place from where you live? If it costs about $35 for the bath and another $30 for the accoutrements that's about $70 THREE times a week!!! Or is that for the "upscale" banya? Of course men go there to do biz I'm sure... sort of like the golf course in the US but women can go to those too...

It sure takes a long time to get the food! I mean half an hour for a dessert? Puh-leez! I can understand the wait for some of the items but others??

And Mayakovsky! I hadn't thought about him in about 30 years!!

And I love the pre-tour shots of Russian limoncello!! Not to mention the wall of fame!! I wonder if they have one in the Women's section too? And those fabulous little white felt caps! So do you continue to bring it with you or get a new one each time? I imagine you have to get a new one for sanitary issues or else the cat could have been sleeping on it between baths...HA! As Seabury would have said. I'm sure he must have gone here. He visited Russia and spoke Russian...

The oak leaves are interesting and so is the birch thing but I don't understand how they work? Do you get the oak leaves wet and plaster them over your soapy body? Or put them on top of the honey on your body? How can you have honey and soap on your body at the same time?

I find this honey thing pretty fascinating. I know it has antiseptic properties but it does sound a little like something out of Winney the Pooh!

Anyhow thanks for the very informative report!! You must tell us how it goes when you go there! More great blog subject matter I'm sure! xov

valentina said...

WEll I wonder how you remember what to do when you're there the first time. I imagine there must be someone who speaks Eng to direct you. After all, they have the name of the place in Eng on the caps...

Ok. I looked at the film... albeit a bit late... It is a really lovely place in only the way a fake gothic place can be. Rather like a Banya Church but you say it is rather a religion among Russians!

Now I get the branch thing but I'm still fuzzy about the honey, salt, soap routine! You'll just have to go there and report back! xov

Tina in CT said...

Very interested but I'll be skipping the banya when I am in Moscow over the holidays. Since I can't stand the feeling when being sweaty, it would not be a good place for me.

When are you going? You'll have to let us all know how it was.

Rabbit blogger said...

went there my very first time in Moscow 8 years ago. It was like I had walked into the bizarro parallel universe for the Sopranos. Giant mafioso types with tiny cel phones....and there are some rooms that are curtained off, when a guy can get a special massage....off the menu. at least that's what i was told. the *other* bada bing room.

The Expatresse said...

I had a "conversation client" of sorts, ages ago. He told me that many residential buildings have banyas on the street level where shops often are. He hated them: "They always have food. Why would I want to stand around naked and eat? And prostitutes. If I want to hire a girl, I'm not going to do it in the banya!"

He was very matter-of-fact.

Rabbit blogger said...

i just remembered i also went to a banya on the outskirts of the city, close to some warehouses & factories. I entered somehow through the "wrong" entrance to find a banya room full of prostitutes, waiting for their party to arrive.

the management brisky showed me to the correct room.

The Expatresse said...

Ha! That's funny.

Anonymous said...


#5 on that menu, горячие блюда, I believe translates better to "hot dishes".

Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...

God I should be Russian, this sounds like the sort of self hating, toxin purging routine I could do once a week...God knows, I have the toxins!!
When I was in Khabarovsk, there was a section of the hotel that had what looked like closets, that I thought I understood to be steam rooms. I really wanted to try it, but never did.

Jojo, Julz, Julianne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Expatresse said...

Thanks, Natalie.

Valentina: web addresses in Russia are never in Cyrillic. But it doesn't mean "English Spoken Here." Far from it.

The Dapper Darling said...


Jen said...

I want one in Sydney.
What a bargain!
Thank you so much for your detailed descriptions - I am going to come back, have a more leisurely read and follow up all your links.
You're better than TV :)

MoscowMom said...

Ohhhhhh! I wanna go!!!! Let's maybe make a bloggers' event out of it! Are you ever free on Wednesdays? Is the banya open then?

Thanks for such a great blog post!

I wonder if Larissa could get me and my mom on a Bolshoi tour in December...

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