Banyas are a Russian institution, a club defined by complex rules of behavior, initiation beatings with birch twigs and harassment by older club members if you get out of line.
One banya tradition not to be missed is the ritual beating by wet birch leaves, or veniki. Afterwards, vainly trying to peel off the leaves clinging to your body brings new meaning to what you can tell your girlfriends when a flirtatious man won’t leave you alone, “On prilip kak banyi list.” (He stuck like a leaf from the banya.)
Banya etiquette is extensive and a slip-up will raise the wrath of large matrons who take pleasure in instructing newcomers in what they should not do. Heads should be covered, usually by a scratchy felt hat, and flip-flops are a must. Always take a shower after the banya and before dipping into the pool. Public banyas are segregated, with either separate areas for men and women or separate bathing days. Banya-goers wear nothing but their flip-flops, so bring a towel and leave your bathing suit at home. Most banyas also offer beauty salon services and massages. Unless stated otherwise, the prices listed below are for a two-hour session.
14 Neglinnaya Ul., Bldg. 3-7, 925-4631, 8am-10pm, M. Kuznetsky Most.
Sandunovskiye Women’s Luxe Section
The women’s luxe section is up a sweeping, shiny staircase. The spacious changing area is open — no room to hide here — but with comfortable benches. The sweat room is large enough for everyone to crowd into, but the place is kept so humid that I could endure only a few minutes at a time before I thought I would spontaneously combust. The washroom is filled with marble benches, plastic basins and even a few chairs, and taps are left running to keep it warm and steamy. A range of beauty treatments are on offer and on my visit I saw two women slathered in mud, wrapped in plastic like dirty mummies, and left for half an hour on washroom benches.
The women’s first-class section is almost as nice as luxe. The bathing area is perhaps not as shiny and there are no statues, but it’s still clean and an excellent choice for bathers on a budget.
Sandunovskiye Men’s Super Luxe Section
Suitably impressed, I asked one of the attendants to direct me to the changing room. He looked at me for a second, then whispered: “This is the changing room.”
Sure enough, it was. On every bench, there were several numbered hooks for hanging clothes. Off to the sides, there were a dozen or so curtained-off private rooms, some of them large enough to accommodate up to 20 people. And the service was fantastic — ask your attendant for anything from a bar of soap to a bottle of chilled vodka and some crabs, and he’ll have it for you within a few minutes.
As far as the bathing and steaming is concerned, well … let’s start with the fact that this banya is a bit too small too accommodate the number of people that come here. The steam room, shower, and changing room are often crowded. And when I visited, the steam room was not nearly hot enough. Usually I have to wait no more than five to 10 minutes before working up a good sweat, but here it took much longer. Still, luxury always wins out. When you’re swimming in the almost full-sized pool, surrounded by Doric columns and Greek statues, you have few complaints.
15 Seleznyovskaya Ul., 978-9430/8491, 8am-10pm, M. Novoslobodskaya.
Seleznyovskiye Women’s Section
Dirty floors may be tolerated in flip-flops, but hanging out with cockroaches made Seleznyovskiye the loser of this list. Maybe the cockroach infestation could be excused by the banya’s ground-floor location, but the sight of dead cockroaches in the showers and live ones scurrying along the tiled washroom floor was not pleasant.
The pool had a yellowed, unloved look and there were birch leaves floating in the uncirculated water. There was no banya attendant to keep the banya at the appropriate temperature on the day that we visited. Instead, just as the heat became bearable, regulars would declare that it was time to clean it out, which took about 20 minutes. Other regulars enjoyed temperatures so high that they had to lay on the floor and cover themselves with sheets to endure it. We spent only about a half an hour sweating and the rest of the time waiting to be allowed back in.
Seleznyovskiye Men’s First Korpus
The Seleznyovskiye baths made a good first impression. Upon entering, I found myself in a cozy foyer, with couches, a coatroom and a small shop selling soaps, sponges and shampoos. The changing room, though dim and a little messy, is quite large, with dozens of large black leather couches arranged around tables. Things took a turn for the worst, however, once I entered the bathing area of the more expensive korpus.
Dingy and grimy, it had only three or four showers stalls, and the rest of the room was filled with stone slabs upon which a variety of metal and plastic tubs stood. Further on, I found a small basin of greenish water that would barely pass for a pool — ominously, most of the banya’s clients seemed to ignore it — and an unmentionably dirty toilet.
About the only saving grace here was that the steam room was hotter than the fires of hell. However, the steam room boasted no benches, so customers had to either spread a towel on the blisteringly hot wooden floor or stand upright and breathe in the scorching air near the ceiling. On the whole, this is a place best avoided.
Bani Na Presne
7 Stolyarny Per. 255-5306 (men’s section), 253-8690 (women’s section), 8am-10pm except Sun. 2pm-10pm, no entrance after 8pm, 500 rubles weekdays, 600 rubles weekends
Bani Na Presne Women’s Section
The large bathing room is decorated with ceramic tiles, not marble. But it boasts an almost full-sized swimming pool for delicious dips in cold water. The water is clear and tinted windows let the sun throw its light across the mini disco balls on the wall.
Helpful attendants will offer to beat you with birch leaves for several minutes, but this sensation costs a steep 200 rubles. After pocketing my 200 rubles in her bathrobe, the attendant offered to give me a scrub massage, which sounded slightly menacing. There are a variety of massages lasting from 20 to 60 minutes, including traditional and water massages.
The only drawback here is that of all the places visited, I felt chilled in the bathing and changing areas. But for being able to spend as much time as we wanted sweating, for having a large, clean pool and for employing the most pleasant staff, this banya wins the award for best girls’ outing.
Bani Na Presne Men’s Section
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