Text Andy Potts
When things seem bleak, Russians head for the banya [bathhouse]. And as the winter holidays fade into memory and the gray days of winter stretch far ahead, it’s only natural to want some kind of tonic or pick-me-up. When in Russia, that means a trip to the hot, steamy world of the banya.
Its importance cannot be overstated – for the inmates of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead the infrequent trip to a flea-ridden bathhouse in the depths of Siberia was a rare and precious glimpse of freedom to be savored all the more for its brevity. Without a New Year party in a banya, Zhenya would never have discovered the “Irony of Fate” in one classic Russian film, and Beeline would never have their overblown promotional sequel to put in the bargain bin at El Dorado.
Whatever the location, the sequence is the same. Strip down to a towel and a felt hat – to protect the hair from the heat, of course – then get into the steam room. A woodburning stove keeps things hot, while the experts apply just the right amount of water to give a dry, cleansing steam. Too much and the room gets clammy and uncomfortable – a novice is not encouraged to intervene when the cognoscenti undertake this task.
Once the heat becomes unbearable, it’s time to jump outside. Indoor bathhouses offer a plunge pool for a bracing chill; country shacks might have you rolling in the snow to achieve the same effect. Throw in a vigorous pummeling with a besom, made from leafy branches to achieve a feeling of happy relaxation in the midst of what appears to be self-inflicted torture.
Getting naked to beat and sweat out the stresses of winter in Moscow is a regular part of life for many Russians, so, not surprisingly, the capital strives to add something more to the experience than a wooden hut and a snowy field. And that’s where the likes of the Sanduny Banya come in. This famous, luxurious city-center spot is perhaps the most opulent in the city. Its marble halls were highly regarded by the great 20th-century opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin, who described it as the Tsar of Banyas. The theatrical quality of the architecture is no surprise – it was originally built to celebrate the wedding of Sila Sandunov and Elizaveta Uranova, court actors to Catherine the Great, and quickly cemented a reputation as the place to be seen. The writers Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Griboyedev were among the visitors who took the vapors there.
The public baths are segregated, though mixed bathing is possible in the more expensive private rooms. A typical session lasts for two hours, and prices for women are 600- 1000 rubles for a stint in the public baths, while men pay 800-1600. Private rooms start at 2500 per hour for a small room and reach 6000 per hour for a group of 10-16. Towels, hats, and besoms are available for hire, and refreshments are also on sale.
14 Neglinnaya Ul., Bldg. 3-7
Tel. +7 (495) 625-4631 (public); +7 (495) 628-4633 (private)
M. Kuznetsky Most
www.sanduny.ru (in English and Russian)
Open every day from 8am to 10pm
Private rooms are available round the clock, with a break from 6-8 am and a 20% surcharge for nighttime bookings.