Banya No.1 is a traditional Russian spa, located on Micawber Street, a 5 minute walk from Old Street tube station. RBJ and I were invited by Banya No.1 to enjoy an afternoon at the spa, accompanied by a traditional “parenie” and scrub treatment. Having never been to a banya before, I had no idea what to expect and I couldn’t find a huge amount of information online. But to be honest even if I had, I still don’t think it would have prepared me for the experience.
We followed the eye hospital green line from Old Street Station before turning off a side road into what appeared to be a rather odd location for a spa. There were lots of residential flats and we started to worry that perhaps someone was having us on! However we soon found 17 Micawber Street and on entering the spa reception, we were greeted with a warm welcome from the receptionist.
We were given a health form to complete, followed by an overview of the treatments that we were booked in for and a tour of the facilities. We were told to change (bathing suits must be worn on mixed days), to relax in the sauna and that someone would come and fetch us for our treatments when it was time.
My first impression was just how impeccably clean the facilities were. Although Banya No.1 is almost three years old, the facilities are spotless and looked brand new. Excited and eager to make the most of our time, we got changed and headed for the banya.
A Russian banya is traditionally hotter and wetter than your average sauna, causing you to sweat more, thus making it more detoxifying. The banya is so warm that you have to wear felt hats to protect your head from the heat and only the two burly Russian men attending to the spa (known as “banshiks” and certainly not your typical spa attendants!) are allowed to touch the cast iron oven where the water is added:After spending 10-15 minutes in the sauna, we were directed outside to pour FREEZING water over ourselves from buckets suspended from the wall, followed by an even colder plunge into the 6 degrees plunge pool, sending our circulation rocketing:
Ice bucket time!We were then told to go and relax in the “chill out room” for twice the time we had been in the sauna. Expecting a dim-lit room with sun loungers, we were surprised to find that the chill out room looked like an upmarket cafe, complete with green leather chairs, waitresses serving shrimp and vodka and films playing footage from the Trans-Siberian railway! The fact that this was all in your wet towel and bikini didn’t seem to bother anyone. We went backwards and forwards between the banya and chill out room, ordering a litre of Kvas (a rye-bread based fermented Russian drink) to enjoy between sessions.
After our second sauna, I was collected by one of the banshiks for my parenie. A parenie is a Russian sauna ritual, which takes places in the sauna with the main focus being to improve blood circulation. To describe it sounds comical – you lay face down on a bench while the banshik (with varying levels of strength) repeatedly “thwacks” you with bunches of aromatic oak tree branches. You then turn over and he does the same to your front. The experience is a bit shocking at first and can be slightly intimidating as it is done in the main sauna with others around. You are also in a hot sauna for around 10 – 15 minutes so if you aren’t a fan of the heat, this is probably not for you as it gets very, very hot! But teamed with a few more ice buckets and a full head-submerging dip into the plunge pool, after my body felt invigorated and energised.RBJ went next (pre-warned by my redness re just how hot you get!) While he was having his parenie, I was given a coffee body scrub – a firm-handed, all-over exfoliation which left my body feeling smooth all over.
In total we stayed in Banya No.1 for just over our scheduled 3 hours. I came out at the end feeling incredibly relaxed and rejuvenated, not to mention a little rosy in the cheeks! Banya No.1’s sauna and parenie certainly isn’t for the faint hearted, however if you like saunas and want a spa experience like no other, I would definitely recommend heading down and trying it for yourself!
*Banya No.1 is not cheap, with 3 a hour session costing £45 peak and £30 off-peak. A parenie is £25 and the coffee body scrub is £20. However what you get at Banya is real value for money, with fabulous facilities and a truly unique experience.
IN THREE WORDS: HOT, AUTHENTIC, INVIGORATING
Click here for more information on Banya No.1