The Banya Spa: The Best Way to Relax in Russia

Solo travel can be draining! Long, taxing flights, hours of walking down unfamiliar streets, no one but yourself to problem solve or just being in a new place with a different climate and environment will lead you to a point of "bone tiredness" or exhaustion if not addressed properly. Having "low energy" is no fun and can greatly damper your trip.

One of the ways I combat solo travel fatigue is by going to a spa. Happily, with the new focus on health, wellness and beauty around the world, there are now a proliferation of different types of spas from which to get refreshed and rejuvenated. Turkish Hamams, French beauty and body treatments, Finnish saunas, Thai massages, Chinese acupuncture, Indian Ayurveda, yoga or meditation or a week long, Germanic cure holiday are a few of the spa experiences I have had the good fortune to enjoy. One of the most invigorating and relaxing experiences was the Russian Banya as well as the Forte Village Spa.

By now you can tell I like to be pampered on the road. Before any trip longer than three days, I always research potential spa options. In my pre-trip Russia research, I learned the Russians have a unique spa treatment, the banya, that has been practiced for centuries which is both a health and a social outing. Going to a banya enhances your metabolism and your body's cells oxygen level in addition to promoting good blood circulation and clearing your respiratory and sinus passages. The Russians believe it is both preventive and healing, an important practice to insure a long life of robust health.

On my last trip to St Petersburg after a long twenty plus hours of flying and layovers, I decided I needed a "boost" to get me over my bad case of jet lag. My hotel, the elegant Taleon Imperial, had a wonderful spa fully equipped with a lavish indoor pool, massage rooms and a banya, a rarity for even a Russian five star hotel. The concierge informed me because it was so late I could have a banya treatment but I would have to rent the entire spa area in order to have the banya professional travel back to the hotel to serve me. Total cost, $300, I said, "Book it."

At 10 o'clock on the evening of my arrival, I found myself relaxing in the hotel's refined pool area feeling overwhelmingly thankful that I was so fortunate to be able to experience such VIP pampering. The spa's frescoed walls with recessed sculpture bays filled with orchid planters, the sophisticated grey and metal modern furniture, the enticing swimming pool and my plush, terrycloth robe helped me begin to relax and made me feel a tad regal.

From my research, I knew a banya had a small room or building known as the "parilka" which is designed like a sauna with multiple levels of benches but instead of sauna dry heat it had wet heat, basically a hybrid of a steam room and a sauna. The temperatures can exceed 199 degrees Fahrenheit which requires you to wear the traditional felt cone shaped hat or a towel on your head to prevent overheating while inside. (LOL! Even with the head covering, it is EXTREMELY hot in a steam filled banya, be forewarned.)

Once inside, you lay on a towel covered bench and begin to sweat profusely for the first five to ten minutes. The heavy sweating opens the pores and releases the toxins from your body. Some people have to briefly step out every 10 minutes or so just to cool down . Others, opt to dive in and out a icy cold plunge pool before returning to the parilka.

The next phase of the banya is the vernik massage which I must share is one of the strangest massage techniques I have ever lived through. Though not painful, it is a massage where a masseuse rythmically beats you with two bunches or "pom poms" of vernik leaf filled branches. The two pom poms are first dipped into a bucket of extremely hot water, after which the massage begins with the waving of the vernick bunches over the body creating convective heat. The leaves release phytoncides which is a plant substance that retards or eliminates the spread and creation of pathogens.

Waggling, stroking, compress, lashing, rubbing and stretching are the various techniques performed in this type of massage. As shared, the massage starts with the waggling, the light flutter of the vernik bunches over the body, preparing you for the ever increasing, more intense procedures that will follow. Next, there's stroking and the compress which involves pressing the vernik bundles against the body from head to toe and against the waist, shoulders, knees and feet for two to three seconds.

Then as the rhythm speeds up, the attendant continues the stroking, compressing techniques and next, adds lashing to the mix. The lashing is light strikes to the body that slightly sting which makes the skin flushed, all geared to promote good circulation. The procedure is finished with the two vernik pom poms pressed on the waist and swiftly parted coupled with last, a waist head to feet swish.

The entire massage lasts for about fifteen minutes and then it's time for the "dreaded" cold pool plunge. I explained to the attendant that I greatly dislike cold swimming pools and asked if I could just use the regular spa pool to cool off. He said, "Sure, it's your choice." After a five minute cool down in the temped pool water, it was back and forth into the parilka another two times until I called it quits. Typically, Russians will alternate the vernik massage and the cold pool plunge five or six times before they are through.

After this one to two hour body meltdown, you are given water or tea to drink to further flush out the toxins. Many Russians like to socialize after their banya by drinking alcohol such as vodka or beer; some even conduct business after a banya. Because I had rented the entire spa, I opted for a traditional massage to take me to the point of relaxation nirvana.

So the next time you are traveling to Russia and need to get over a bad case of jet lag or just want to relax and be pampered, head to a Banya Spa. You will be glad you did! With this said, I must share a word of caution. If you have any health problems, especially a heart condition, high blood pressure or diabetes, consult your doctor before indulging a banya massage and get the OK that your health is strong enough to partake in this type of body treatment.

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