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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Banya for Beginners

According to Russians, a trip to the bathhouse -- or banya -- will cure whatever ails you: stress, sore muscles, a hangover and a dozen other maladies of body and spirit. Here are some tips for bathhouse beginners.

What to do ahead of time: If you want a massage, pedicure, manicure, facial or other treatment, call ahead to set up an appointment. Sometimes you can make an appointment on the spot, but on prime banya days, particularly Sundays, the staff is usually booked in advance.

What to bring: plastic slippers, bathing essentials, including shampoo, soap, hand cream, comb and brush, loofah or abrasive sponge; skin exfoliants, including either packaged or homemade skin masks, like coffee grounds, honey, mashed berries and mud; and a felt or wool hat for the steam room.

What to ask for at the ticket booth: At the door -- men and women have separate facilities -- buy your ticket and ask for a sheet (prostynya), towel (polotentse) and bag check (khranenie). You might also buy a "banya hat" (bannaya shapka) made of felt and a bough of branches, or venik, which are soaked in hot water to be softened and then used to beat the body to improve circulation.

Inside the bathhouse: Bathhouses have three sections. There's a changing room, often with separate cabins and banquettes; a washing room with benches and shower stalls; and a steam room. Modern bathhouses usually also have dry-heat saunas and cold-water pools; fancy bathhouses have additional massage rooms, barbershops, hair and tanning salons, and cabins for manicures, pedicures and facials.

What to do: After disrobing and checking your valuables, either in a locker or with the attendant, wrap yourself in a sheet (or not, as you wish) and head for the steam room: a wood-lined room with a huge stove and benches rising like bleachers. Some bathhouses announce "steam time"; others let the patrons handle the steam themselves. First rule for novices: Sit on the bottom bench and cover your head with a towel or hat and shoulders with a sheet. Only seasoned banya devotees should sit on the top benches, where the temperature is highest. Second rule: no talking. Steaming is serious business.

Jennifer Chater / MT
Sandunovskiye Bani in central Moscow offer a luxurious bathhouse experience.
The attendant will close the door to the steam room, open the stove hatch and begin to ladle water on red-hot rocks. Often the attendant will stop to spray water mixed with aromatic oils on the ceiling or to wave a towel to force the steam to descend. After more water is tossed on the rocks and everyone agrees the temperature is just right (60 to 70 degrees Celsius), the stove door is closed, and everyone waits. In about one minute the steam descends like a blanket of fire, which is why your shoulders should be covered, and for several minutes you sit and sweat.

From the steam room, head straight for the cold-water pool and plunge in. For a few seconds you will feel like you've just had a heart attack, but then you get a jolt of energy. If the pool is too daunting, take a cool shower or pour water over your head from one of the plastic tubs in the washing room.

Once you're refreshed, you can go back into the steam room where, for a fee, you can lie on a bench and have an attendant pound you with wet branches. When you emerge, stand under the shower and use your sponge or loofah pad to get rid of all those nasty dead skin cells.

The usual ritual is several steams interspersed with pampering procedures and breaks for tea, mineral water, or beer and snacks, ordered from the attendants in the changing room. When your skin is soft and looks like veined marble, it's time for a final shower.

As you leave, the attendants will say "S lyogkim parom," a wish that the steam was light and refreshing.