The Banya

Posted on February 11, 2012


I arrived in Odessa just as the cold snap was taking Europe by surprise. It was too early to tell just how severe it would become.  The saddening death tolls had just started to amass and weren’t reported yet. Just a week before I arrived, my host Joey walked to work in only a button up shirt and tie. However, by the end of my five-day stay, every muscle in my body was sore. Walking around inadequately prepared for the stabbing Siberian wind caused my whole body to clench up in defense.

When my host suggested we visit a banya (a Russian sauna) on the fourth day, I knew it would be the highlight of my trip.

We could have sought refuge at a number of banyas in Odessa, but Joey hesitantly suggested the historic one from 1860. It wasn’t his first suggestion as he feared I might not be up for it. Let’s just say it is definitely authentic. Although it is the oldest banya, it’s not on most of the tourist maps. Its name is often preceded by the word ‘mafia.’

I reasoned: authentic, old, 1860, mafia frequented, WARM…what are we waiting for?

The city of Odessa is organized into large blocks on a grid system. There are big iron gates which open into courtyards made up of mainly residential but sometimes commercial buildings. I don’t remember seeing a sign on the main street advertising this particular banya. If there was one, it must not have been very prominent. We entered the courtyard which was particularly old. Creaky stairs lead to sagging wooden porches. Futilely, laundry hanging out to dry in the lazy falling snow.

I am a huge fan of Turkish baths (hammam), but I admit to having some reservations about my first Ukrainian banya visit. I had learned the traditions of the Turkish hammam and knew all the steps and what to expect. I knew almost nothing about banyas. All I had were Hollywood expectations which came from the movie Eastern Promises. Viggo Mortensen’s fight scene kept running through my head. Would I too be questioned by a room full of suspicious, naked, and tattooed gangsters? Would my tattoos send the wrong message? Why had I not taken any naked self-defense classes?

Of course, nothing that exciting would happen.

We rented sandals, a bucket, and a bouquet of birch tree branches. I’m calling it a bouquet because it was almost pretty. It was a bundle of short branches with the sharp green leaves, tied together with twine. I began to see just how different it was going to be from a hammam. I scanned the locker room and realized that this was a 100% naked event. As I undressed, I tried to negotiate with my American, Georgia boy upbringing. Come on man, you don’t want to be the only dope walking around this place in a wimpy towel.

Holding my towel and birch branches, I tried not to slip on the wet steps leading to the basement. There were tiled columns and green tinted natural light coming through small windows. Apparently, you should soak your birch leaves for a while before using them, and that is what the bucket is for.

After showering off and giving the birch time to soak, we went into the sauna.

The whole banya was crowded, but the tight quarters of the sauna room felt even more bustling. The first thing you notice upon entering is the rhythmic rustle of the birch. You are also overwhelmed by the aromatic smell of heated, wet birch.

The room is a concrete? rectangular pit with steps on all sides. The highest step is made of wooden planks. There is not enough room on the upper step to sit up, so it’s primarily for lying down. However, the planks are burning hot. That is when I realized why people bother to bring in the flimsy rented towels. The towels protect you from burning your skin. But what of your head? Heat rises, and your head can get dangerously hot. That is why savvy sauna goers wear banya hats. Banya hats are probably the coolest things ever, and I plan to buy one next time I’m in town. I guess I would describe a banya hat as similar in shape to the cap on an acorn. It is gray and made up a thick felt-like material. It has an odd loop on the top for hanging I suppose.

One of the coolest things about this banya is the device heating the whole place. In the corner, there was half of a massive anti submarine mine from WWII or The Great Patriotic War as it is known in Ukraine. I can’t think of anything more badass than a sauna heated by such a menacing relic as this. This device of destruction was reformed and given a second life here in Odessa. A bearded old man with a faded shoulder tattoo, some kind of flag, calls out a warning to the room, then takes his birch branches dipped in water flings it like a priest on the mine. There is a pop and hiss as scalding water ricocheted onto my face. So that is what he was warning everyone about.

Now for the beating.

The time had come for us to put the birch instrument into use. My friend instructed, “Hit me.” I hoped no one was watching my technique as I began pummeling quite forcefully. After talking to several friends about the experience afterwards, I was informed that you definitely shouldn’t hit as hard as we were that day. It should be more of a smack and kind of feathering action. Oh well, my mindset at the time was: go big or go home.

It was eventually my turn to be beaten. After the initial sting, it began to feel good. I’m  not sure exactly what it is supposed to do for you, but the overall effect was very relaxing.

I left the sauna when the heat became too much, but the fun didn’t stop there.

When you leave the sauna you notice a wooden bucket hanging near the ceiling. There is a thick rope hanging down. I could tell from the yells of the other men that the water in that bucket was mighty cold. I could describe it as life affirming.

After several trips to the sauna then the bucket. We were ready to leave. Still, I couldn’t hold my head up high if I left without braving the most intimidating part of the banya first. Just outside the sauna there is a large tank higher that your head. Thick tiled concrete walls and steps lead almost to the ceiling. Then you must plunge into the icy tank.

I felt like a new man.

The banya is an amazing place, and I have to say, it trumps the Turkish sauna for only a couple of reasons. First, there is a bar/cafe which is immediately adjacent. Still steaming from the sauna, you can order a large cup of tea with a floating lemon slice or beer. There is also a barber on hand in case you would like a relaxing trim and shave. People also bring hard-boiled eggs and potatoes into the sauna.

I headed back out into the snow with a warmth in my bones and the strength to face another day of the Siberian cold front.

Joey gave me some advice early on; the only rule in Ukraine is: Be bold, and you will be rewarded.

He was certainly right. There is nothing like a banya in Winter, in Ukraine.