A Trip to the Banya
St. Petersburg is a city known for its history, art, culture and, arguably most famously, its winter. After two weeks in this beautiful city I have already realized that winter is coming. With the temperatures this time of year barely reaching more than 60 degrees, the days are already seeming colder and colder. But what does one do to combat the cold weather in St. Petersburg? Go to the Баня (banya, or bathhouse).
The Russian banya is a communal hub that dates back to the times when baths or showers were not a common staple in all residences. A trip to the banya served as a time to cleanse oneself and also enjoy the social company of neighbors.
My friend from Oberlin, Jean Paul, and I decided that we would undertake this adventure together.
The banya experience begins with your own private chamber where you can relax, order food or drinks and also get ready. The banyas in Russia have a strict no-clothing rule, so not even swimsuits are allowed.
Then, we took a 10-minute trip into the banya. Every Kenyon student knows that the sauna and steam rooms at the KAC are marvelous treasures, but this room puts Graham Gund’s sauna to shame. The banya is a massive room with three different levels, each with a corresponding level of heat.
After 20 minutes in the banya you are to exit and dive into a cold pool for about 10 minutes, and after that dip, the real fun begins.
Next is the most “interesting” component. All banya-goers are encouraged to buy a веник (venik), which is a collection of dried branches that have been soaked in boiling water. The venik is taken back into the sauna with you for 20-30 more minutes. You are then supposed to strike your neighbors with the venik all over their bodies, as this is seen as a way to improve circulation and clean the body. After 20 minutes of being pummeled with branches in the 150-degree room, Jean Paul and I called it quits. A quick dip in the pool, then an ice bath, and our adventure was complete.
As weird as this all sounds, I did feel sparkling clean and very relaxed afterward. Who knew that being hit with a few branches could really relax you? But above all, hearing the conversation in the banya was the best part.
It truly is a cultural hub, where friends meet to relax and talk about their lives. It was an incredible experience, and I speak for both Jean Paul and myself that we will be heading back again for another round of stick beating in the banya!