In my mind, banya — a particular kind of bathhouse / sauna cross-breed — was always one of those inextricably Russian cultural identifiers, alongside vodka, snow, bears, communism, Nutcracker ballet and Matryoshka nesting dolls. In my mind, a banya was a small log cabin, where after a wash and a steam you get beaten half to death by a birch besom, and then run outside either to be doused with a bucket of ice water, jump into a stream, or roll around in the snow — completely naked. Naturally, you would wrap up this “authentic Russian experience” with some vodka. In my mind, banya was this:
I’m a born and raised Russian, so the very first banya I had ever gone was … drum roll, please … at Fulton Street in New York City. At the ripe old age of over 25. Funny enough, it was pretty authentic, the multi-storied brick exterior and Financial District location notwithstanding. There were birch besoms and vodka and lots and lots of nearly-naked Russians, and a sort of an ice pool to jump into in place of piles of fresh snow.
I’ve returned to Russia more than three years ago and STILL have not been beaten up by birch branches or experienced the steam-to-snow rush. So, when last weekend my friend invited me to a group outing at a Moscow banya, I thought, here it comes, the real Russian experience!!!
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Venetian Suite at the Ninth Wave Banya Club in Kolomenskoye.
Turns out in a modern Moscow banya you get most of the accoutrements of an old-school country steam house in a much more civilized setting. Traditional bits are: the steam room itself (though more like a dry sauna), the birch branches on demand, a special stall with suspended bucket of ice water to dump on yourself after a steam, and the drinks, of course. Modern additions are: the totally over the top lounge / antechambre, ice hockey table, karaoke machine, TV set, adjacent bathroom, changing room and um, a sex room (why else do you need a separate room with a queen sized bed in a sauna suite?), shower stalls and a pool with a waterfall. And a wall-mounted phone to order the aforementioned drinks, as well as food or anything else for your banya needs from the concierge.
The Venice Suite accommodates parties of up to 12 people, though other suites at this club (all of them thematically decorated, from “Mexico” to “Persia”) have capacity from 4 to 25 people. And the experience is surprisingly affordable, though obviously more spendy than being beaten in a log cabin on an outskirts of some village in the snow: Venice’s 2-hour minimum in prime banya time (Saturday or Sunday evening) will set you back RR4800, or at today’s horrible exchange rates – way less than $100, and that’s for up to 12 people. The drinks and food are extra, but are priced cheaper than you’d find at an average Moscow cafe. My friends and I came in a group of 10, for 3 hours, had endless rounds of drinks and a bunch snacks, and spent around RR1500 each ($25 today or $50 in the days of yore, i.e. January 2014). A totally great deal — and a really fantastic experience!