Moscow on the Thames

It’s full steam ahead at Lon­don’s first Rus­sian bath house

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KATE WEIN­BERG

It is 9pm. I am ly­ing face down on a wooden slab in a hot room, mus­ing on how Rus­sian Lon­don has be­come while a tat­tooed man called Oleg pum­mels the backs of my thighs with two branches of rustling oak leaves. Af­ter all: a Rus­sian man owns Chelsea foot­ball club; a Rus­sian has bought the house that backs on to the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge’s in Kens­ing­ton; a Rus­sian owns a Lon­don daily pa­per and Rus­sian bil­lion­aires are bat­tling out their com­mer­cial in­ter­ests in Bri­tish courts. The oak leaves rus­tle higher up and as Oleg whisks the branches over my back, my bikini top pings open. “Spe­cial Rus­sian tech­nique,” says Oleg, and keeps on pum­melling.

My hus­band and I are in a Rus­sian banya, or bath­house, in east Lon­don, and the spe­cial Rus­sian tech­nique that Oleg is em­ploy­ing is pare­nie, a whole-body thrash­ing or “mas­sage” with a bun­dle of twigs while ly­ing in a steamy sauna. It is a rit­ual best known in its home­land for stim­u­lat­ing the blood cir­cu­la­tion and re­leas­ing tox­ins and best known in Bri­tain for the scan­dal that erupted when it emerged that the then busi­ness sec­re­tary Peter Man­del­son had been rit­u­ally thwacked while on a trip to Siberia hosted by a Rus­sian oli­garch.

The banya is no stranger to pol­i­tics. “Many of the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions in Moscow are made in the banya,” Oleg tells us, bring­ing to mind a vi­sion of Putin with a towel slung around his hips, bar­ing his pecs for a testos­terone-fu­elled sum­mit with his cronies. Talk­ing pol­i­tics in the banya seems to be the Rus­sian equiv­a­lent of a west­ern busi­ness­man cut­ting a deal on the golf course.

Although we are here on a mixed male and fe­male night, it cer­tainly feels like a boys’ en­vi­ron­ment. The nofrills chang­ing ar­eas are more gym locker room than ho­tel spa. Changed into our bathing kit, we are es­corted through to what looks like a small clu­b­room bar with rac­ing-green leatherette booths. A tele­vi­sion hang­ing in the cor­ner is show­cas­ing Rus­sian croon­ers from the 70s.This is the bar in which we are sup­posed to rest, eat and knock back vodka shots be­tween sauna ses­sions. To be clear, the banya is not quite the same as a con­ven­tional Nordic sauna, although sit­ting be­tween its swel­ter­ing, as­pen­clad walls cer­tainly feels like one. It is not as hot; tem­per­a­ture is kept at a tol­er­a­ble level and the air is “wet­ter” be­cause of wa­ter splashed on a tonne of cast iron which is bak­ing in­side a brick fur­nace. The steamier air is said to be more ben­e­fi­cial for sweat­ing and detox­i­fy­ing.

As we walk into the banya we are each handed a small felt hat that looks like a tea cosy. Not only does it strip any re­main­ing glam­our from an al­ready sweaty sit­u­a­tion, but the hat, we are told, keeps our heads from get­ting too hot. There are only a cou­ple of other peo­ple in the hot room, one of whom is Ukrainian. We sit sweat­ing to­gether un­til a tooth­less old Rus­sian guy walks in and ges­tures at a slab of wood in the cor­ner. I vol­un­teer not to go first.

It is like some­thing from a James Bond film. Just as my hus­band gets com­fort­able, the old guy ex­its and a huge young man with a glis­ten­ing bare chest and a jaw that looks like it’s been squared off on a butcher’s block walks in twirling two bunches of leaves, cheer­leader style. It’s funny to watch; less funny when it’s my turn. At first it feels like heavy rain­fall on my calves, up the backs of my thighs, onto back and shoul­ders. But as the pare­nie pro­gresses the tick­ling turns into slap­ping, which turns into thwack­ing. The idea is ap­par­ently not to mas­sage the body but to in­crease blood cir­cu­la­tion and bring the blood, and tox­ins, up to the skin’s sur­face. The bun­dle of twigs, called a venik, can be oak, birch or, for a more aro­matic ex­pe­ri­ence, eu­ca­lyp­tus. A few min­utes into the pare­nie the door opens and the buff man is sub­sti­tuted by Oleg, who is twirling a new set of branches.

It is a 10-minute or­deal, with three dif­fer­ent veniki. It feels strange, but only be­comes un­pleas­ant in the last minute, not be­cause it is painful (which strangely, it isn’t) but be­cause the twigs’ in­creas­ing tempo is mov­ing the air at such a pace it sud­denly feels claus­tro­pho­bi­cally hot. Ex­actly at this mo­ment, I am helped to my feet, led out of the sauna and placed un­der a bucket shower that is pulled with a rope. Icy wa­ter cas­cades over me and I’m hard pressed not to shriek. But the pun­ish­ment is not over. Oleg leads me up the stairs of a deep, wooden plunge pool and I am en­cour­aged (well, forced, sort of) to jump in and sub­merge my­self. The wa­ter is 8C and I am in and out like a jack-in-the-box. My hus­band man­ages to stay in for a few sec­onds, but when he emerges, red-faced with his mouth gulp­ing for breath like a gold­fish, I worry for a mo­ment he’s go­ing to have a stroke. In fact, the heat fol­lowed by ex­treme cold is sup­posed to have the op­po­site ef­fect. The old Rus­sian man thumps his chest and says some­thing to Oleg, who trans­lates. “If you do this reg­u­larly, no heart attack. No stroke,” he says.

We re­tire to the bar and or­der gherkins, a cou­ple of shots of vodka and a glass of beet­root kvass. When the kvass ar­rives, we look at the deep pur­ple drink. “What is this?” I ask the Rus­sian wait­ress. She picks up the glass. She looks at it. And she gives a Baltic shrug: “It is this,” she says. And she’s right. It is. Parts of the Rus­sian rit­ual re­main mys­te­ri­ous to us, but not its ap­peal. Al­most three hours have passed and we leave the banya feel­ing re­newed. Tingly and en­er­gised, only partly thanks to the vodka, we emerge into the night and make our way back through the lights of Moscow-on-Thames

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