One of the things I miss most while being nomadic is my bathroom routine. Having all of my favorite things set up the way I like them. Electric devices like hair dryers and curlers. Not having to pack everything up every few weeks. And I am so limited in what I can bring along! Sigh.
What can I do when I’m feeling the sludge of the city and the weariness of being far from home? Luckily, Europe is not short on spas and bathhouses from many different traditions and I happen to love a good communal bathhouse.
In Paris I went to a Moroccan hammam and had a wonderful time steaming, bathing and getting a massage. A hammam is an Arabic version of a Roman bath with a focus on water. They give you an amazing gel soap called savon noir to begin the experience.
Back in Chicago I’d visit a Korean spa as often as I could. Also a focus on water, plus many different kinds of dry saunas at varying temps and with different organic materials thought to promote healing. In addition this space has a movie and karaoke room.
Of course in Hawaii we would just go to the beach 🙂
The Russian Banya
The Russian banya has similarities to bathhouses I’ve been to and also some unique features I was delighted with. The banya is like a sauna, but the heat comes from water thrown on rocks to create steam. It’s not as wet as a steam room but much more humid than a traditional sauna.
The traditional treatment is called parenie and is a massage using a venik. A venik is a bunch of leafy branches, usually oak, birch or eucalyptus.
After checking in to Banya No. 1, I was lead to a lounge room and then a changing room. Everyone was very nice and seemed excited I was about to experience banya for the first time. I was given a locker and a towel and told to have a steam in the banya and then come out for some tea in the lounge. I would then be called for my services.
Walking into the spa room, I was given a felt hat to protect my head. I felt a little silly but was glad to follow safety protocol. I stepped into the banya and immediately began to sweat.
I then had a preview of what was to come. Two other women were about to receive the parenie.
One of the benches was moved to the middle of the room and a eucalyptus branch was placed at one end and a foot pillow at the other. The woman laid stomach down with her head on the eucalyptus. Another branch was placed over her head. She inhaled deeply and held the branch close to her head. The attendant (who looked like a wood gnome wearing the hat and brandishing the two large branches) first threw a few ladles full of water into the oven to heat it up. He held two large bundles of oak leaves and began shaking them over her body, drawing the heat of the room down to her. He then flicked the branches up and down her body, taking special care not to miss her legs, feet and arms. Every now and then he would press the branches into her back and the backs of her legs. He also freshened the eucalyptus branch around her head. The whole process lasted about 10 minutes.
The other woman in the room told me the purpose was to increase circulation and vitality. She said it would make me feel like a ‘new born baby’. I was stoked. I had also read the essential oils from the leaves were therapeutic and I loved how natural it all was.
The next step was to step out into the shower room and have a bucket of cold water dumped over your head and then to take a plunge in a the cool dip tank. This is also to improve circulation. And make you scream like a lunatic.
My experience was very invigorating. It was new and exciting. The eucalyptus branch was nice and fragrant over my head and I loved that the massage was done with tree branches. I think I did feel like a new born baby! I certainly had to take my time walking again as my skin was tingling and the rush of blood after the cold plunge was a bit dizzying.
Immediately after I was led into a room with a hot stone table for my second service. Scrubbed down with sea salt and honey and then led back into the banya to heat up again. After showering I stepped back into the lounge to drink some tea, feeling pretty amazing.
The next step was a 30 minute massage. My masseuse was skilled, nice and very talkative. She had told me earlier that she was from Lithuania and they also have banya where she came from. Before the days of modern plumbing, most villages had a banya where people would come to bathe.
We also spoke at length about the Brexit. It was hard not to get on that topic as many people living here from other countries are worried about their status and welcome-ness in the wake of the UK voting to leave the EU. I was actually more interested in hearing her stories and ideas and wasn’t totally focussed on the massage I was receiving. I’m pretty sure it was awesome!
Back out to the lounge for some tea and then my final treatment-a face and décolletage mud treatment. It was also great, laying on the heated stone slab.
One last heat up in the banya with a cold plunge and I was ready for lunch! I picked a few things ala carte-pancakes with sour cream, pickled gherkins and some cabbage. A shot of Russian vodka and I was out the door.
How this all works
How expensive was this you ask? Not as much as you would think. It was a bit of a splurge, but for the $150 or so spent, I felt I got great value considering I had 3 spa services and a massage.
Many bathhouses have an entrance fee anywhere from $20-40. For this price you typically get a towel, locker and use of the saunas, steam baths and showers for a period of time. Services cost extra and can be added on, or not. In the hammam it is very common to bring in your own toiletries, so it doesn’t have to break your bank.
No Russian banya near you? No problem! Treat yourself in the comfort of your own home. The next time you have for a nice long bath, add some eucalyptus essential oil to the water. Or any oils, scents, salts you have on hand. Oatmeal is also nice.
Experiment with making your own scrubs. Honey and salt is messy, but luxuriant and easy to obtain. Use it in your bath so its easy to clean.
Lastly, if you have the chance, check out a bathhouse near you. It’s a wonderful experience. More than just bathing, there is a social aspect which makes for very real, meaningful conversations and connections which go beyond the superficial. I focused mostly on the physical experience and benefits here, but could also write a lot about the healthy socializing. The bathhouse promotes health of the mind as well as body.