I rang in the recent New Year in Montreal with my Russian and several of our close friends. We spent the first few days at their home in Montreal enjoying traditional Russian dishes, watching hockey and celebrating before heading an hour outside of the city to the Domaine Saint-Alexandre, a cozy chalet we rented in the woods.
The rustic retreat was equipped with an outdoor Jacuzzi, game room and cozy fireplace, but the highlight was its traditional Russian sauna.
My Russian has raved about Russian saunas, for years, describing them as an essential pastime in Russian life. Despite my slight apprehension, I was anxious to finally see what all the hype was about.
A traditional Russian sauna, or banya, is typically a wooden structure featuring several rooms – an entry room, wash room and steam room. The entry room serves as a gathering place with a table and benches for resting and enjoying cold beer and snacks between trips into the steam room. Saunas can vary in size from smaller structures in wooded areas to larger, more formal establishments.
The steam room features a stove with a chamber filled with rocks which generates heat. Water is then poured over the stones to produce steam. Temperatures inside the steam room can reach over 100 degrees.
In more secluded saunas, some visitors choose to steam in the nude, but usually a swimsuit is worn. Every Russian sauna provides felt hats, which are worn to keep the head from overheating. A towel or cloth shower cap will also do, so long as the head is covered.
A helpful tip: Avoid wearing swimwear with metal accents. As the steam room heats up, so does the metal on your suit. I learned this the hard way!
THE BANNIY VENIK
A signature feature that distinguishes Russian saunas from others is the banniy venik, which literally translates to bath broom. Leafy birch or eucalyptus branches are bound together, soaked in a mix of water and aromatherapy oils then used to massage or hit one another. The idea being that when the branches hit the skin, it intensifies the heat causing the pores to open and release toxins. I opted out of this ritual!
Visiting a Russian sauna is more than just a spa treatment, it is considered a social activity often lasting several hours. Friends and families often attend together. A typical visit starts by entering the steam room and steeping until the heat becomes unbearable. You then exit, rinse off if you choose then rest in the entry room and enjoy some snacks and a cold beer until you’ve cooled off. Then repeat!
We were served a light spread of smoked salmon, grilled shrimp and calamari along with compote – a fruit drink – as well as hot tea and ice cold beer. We also enjoyed trips to the outdoor Jacuzzi. Some of our braver friends even rolled around in the snow after exiting the steam room. Despite my initial apprehension, I left feeling rejuvenated. I look forward to visiting another Russian sauna and perhaps next time will be brave enough to be hit with the banniy venik!
Have you ever experienced a traditional Russian sauna? If not, would you try it? Share your comments below!