RIGA - This winter is turning out to be so wet, windy and all-around weary that finding a way to escape has become a matter of mental health, if not physical survival. It's January, and shopping at the malls is hopelessly blase, and more dining at restaurants unforgivably gluttonous. And pardon me, but I can't get excited about Latvian basketball.
Not all is lost. Recently I found what I believe to be the finest alternative to self-preservation in a season of meteorological madness: paying money - actually paying money - to be vigorously whipped across my body by a naked man armed with oak branches.
Now I know immediately what you're thinking: That I must have digested a couple of PCP-laced cepeliniai during the Christmas trip to Vilnius or at the very least just come out of the proverbial closet. That would be a rash judgment. Because I must say that, all in all, I found the whole experience of being scourged enjoyable. It was, believe it or not, blissfully cathartic.
As a foreigner trying to scrape together an existence in the increasingly expensive Baltics, I have taken to the Russian banya like a bored stag to a freshly tapped keg. I've returned three times already. There is something invigorating about the whole experience. You can't help but feel that your polluted body has been thoroughly cleansed the minute you stagger back out into the cool night air. Your limbs feel lighter, the pores of your skin breath freer.
Mind you, a flogging is not obligatory for one to enjoy the banya. The scorch of the steam and the chill of the pool water are sufficient to guarantee invigorating sensations.
Banya vs. sauna
The interior of a typical bathhouse is made of black alder (which balneologists claim is optimal for absorbing negative energy), with three wooden tiers for sitting or lying down and a stove, into which eucalyptus-water is regularly sprinkled. This distinguishes the Russian banya from the Finnish sauna, which normally runs on an electric stove filled with stones or bricks. The sauna thus provides a super-hot, dry heat (110 - 120 degrees Celsius), while the banya is milder but very moist (80 - 90 degrees with 70 - 80 degree humidity).
Now far be it from me to jump into the age-old Finno-Russian debate about which is better - and no doubt several small armed conflicts in the region of Karelia have been fought over it - but suffice it to say that stepping into a small room where the ambient temperature is over the boiling point doesn't strike me as even mildly therapeutic.
Leonard Revyakov, a physical therapist with over 20 years experience in the banya and massage culture, would agree. In the intense heat of the sauna, the human organism responds by defending itself, whereas in the banya the pores in one's skin open up and allow the cleansing processes to begin.
Otherwise, banyas come in all shapes and sizes. You can elbow into the crowded, inexpensive ones and enjoy the salty talk of the locals, or you can search out an upscale steam-room complete with VIP rooms and footservants.
For the full affect, I went to Sokolovskie Bani (Sokolovsky Baths) in Jurmula. The price of a basic visit only costs a few lats, but the whole gamut of banya amenities is available. For those who have never tried any of this before, this upscale institution in Bulduri, designed on the famous 104-year-old Sandunovsky Bani in Moscow, is probably the best place for novices. An overcrowded bathhouse with shoddy facilities and filthy walls will make you run for the exit.
I splurged on the full range of pampering and during a three-hour session was treated to everything from curative green tea to a spirited thrashing across my body. Again, this latter part isn't mandatory, but for the full affect it is highly recommended that you at least ask for a "gentle once-over" with a cluster of birch branches (best collected in the peak season of July). Ask whoever does it to go easy.
In addition, therapist Revyakov gave me his classic multi-phase massage treatment, which included scrubbing my flabby skin with salt, then natural juices and finally, honey. This last round was particularly interesting, as I was wrapped tightly in a sheet of plastic to allow the honey to work its energizing magic. I felt locked in a cocoon, and sure enough, Revyakov told me that after this procedure I would grow wings.
And while I certainly didn't fly out of the banya that day, I sure did float. (For those interested in experiencing this, Leonard can be reached at 371-928-4375.)
Bacchus and banya
Should people drink in the banya? This, too, is a much-debated question, and is best left to each individual to decide. My suspicion is that many unconscionable banya operators will tell you that drinking is perfectly fine if only because they want you to spend more money. When in fact imbibing any amount of alcohol after sweating profusely is patently ridiculous from a health standpoint. Your body is demanding fluid, and you give it alcohol - it doesn't take a genius to figure out that something's wrong with this equation.
Hedonistically speaking, however, I've already discovered that the banya is best with a couple of glasses of low-alcohol beer and some smoked fish, preferably salmon. Few things in life are finer, enthusiasts say, and I would have to agree. It completely negates the weight-conscious aspect of going to the banya in the first place, but then again, who said we were worried about our health?
* There are no generals in the banya
* A banya without tree branches is like a table without salt
* Let's settle the deal, shake hands, and head straight to the banya
* If it weren't for the banya, we would all be lost
* The banya will wash away all sins
* In the banya there is no swearing
* A banya without steam is like cabbage soup without good broth
* You don't grow a day older the day you spend in the banya
The Russian bath has a long and distinguished history that has seen it grow in popularity right around the world. The earliest reference to it dates all the way back to Herodotus, who wrote that the Scythians living in Ukraine used a primitive form of one. "No Hellenic bath could be compared to it," he wrote.
In the early 1600s, a German librarian, Adamus Olearius, visited Russia and gave this account of the banya in his book, "Persian Travel Tales": "It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold water, or have it poured upon them. Or in the winter wallow themselves in the snow, and so return into the stoves again."
And Pushkin wrote rather charmingly in 1832: "The Russian does not change his clothing on a journey, and when he reaches his destination, he is like a pig himself. Then he takes a banya - the banya is like the Russian's second mother."