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It wasn’t quite the picture postcard I had imagined. We gathered in a car park behind an apartment block in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. A heavy brown metal door was opened by portly fellow. Indecipherable but largely welcoming, he ushered us inside. Descending the steps into the humid basement, the door closed firmly behind us.
We dozen British chaps were here to experience a traditional Belarusian ‘banya’, a Slavic sauna involving a light flagellation and scrub with bushels of birch.
This was neither high glamour nor rustic chic but a true Belarusian neighbourhood banya. Having undressed and robed ourselves in only a thin sheet, we took in our surrounds.
A small basement swimming pool with walls painted unconvincingly to reflect a forest and lakeside scene. At one end were some garden furniture for lounging and at the other a faux rock face with a small artificial waterfall plunging into the pool. Behind the waterfall, a ‘secret’ cave pool had been constructed. Designed with the same dubious artistic licence, the cave was complete with a jacuzzi thruster and some mood lighting.
Upstairs were three large living rooms with comfy leather sofas, a dining table, a Belarusian pool table, an empty bar and, centre stage, a pole dancing pole. I sensed that we weren’t going to be the most risqué group that this banya had ever hosted. It was all so odd, awkward and kitsch, there was nothing to do but embrace it.
Relinquishing the sheet, and with it all modesty, we took to the luke warm waters of the pool to await our turn in the actual banya proper. To add a little local courage, we cracked open the, “Soviet Champagne.” Not a metaphor, that was the literal translation of the posh looking bottles of sparkling wine. With a youthful bouquet, its taste was redolent of park benches and under age drinking.
Invigorated with this local cheer inside us, the awaiting banya was a sauna familiar to us all. Traditionally, this would have been a wooden cabin in the countryside, heated intensely by a ferociously hot stove and made humid by slowly adding water to heated stones.
Taking to the sweltering sauna in pairs, we were instructed to lay face up, with head and feet resting on bunches of birch foliage. Feeling rather exposed, the addition of a felt hat over our head to protect us from the steam’s heat did little to alleviate this.
An accompaniment of a wad of birch leaves dowsed in cold water was put on our face. With the aromatic and cooling head gear on, the banya professional set about bashing and scrubbing us head to toe with two generous “veniks” – small brooms of the birch branches and leaves – and with increasing fervour.
The reason for the birch was not accidental. The leaves are said to release essential oils, as well as vitamins C and A, all absorbed by the skin. The burnishing was to aid its transfer and increase our circulation. Front done, we then lay face down to receive more of the same.
In more rural banyas, one would emerge from the steamy cabin and jump into the fresh snow or icy river and lake waters. After some ten minutes of burnishings in the banya, we returned to the pool, rejuvenated and cleansed.
I had expected further steam rooms or other distractions to explore but I was missing the point. The banya is not a time for distractions, it is a communal experience: relaxing, detoxing, sharing stories and conversing with your fellow man.
After everyone had had their leafy scrub, we (mostly) returned to wearing our modesty sheet and retired to the lounges upstairs. In keeping with the chest thumping masculinity of the occasion, we feasted, eating with our hands from trays of freshly barbecued meats.
Whole afternoons can be spent re-entering the banya for further steam sessions. Alas, our short time in Minsk would not oblige us this luxury. We emerged into the daylight, refreshed, detoxified and bonded as brothers, as only one can be having seen his fellow man quite so nakedly at one with Belarusian nature.
Location of our banya:
Lead photo courtesy of Banya 1.