Discreetly tucked away on Micawber Street, N1, you’ll find Banya No1, the UK’s only Russian bath house. An office block from the outside, descend the stairs and you’re in Atlantis. This watery theme continues into the banta, however the real focus here is on steam.
Unlike conventional saunas, a Russian banya generates high levels of steam as water is splashed onto cast iron heated to 700°C inside a brick furnace. Although the banya’s temperature (70°C) is lower than in a sauna the high levels of steam cause the body to sweat profusely and then detoxify. These blasts in the ‘oven’ are followed by freezing douches, and dips in the plunge pool to keep your body temperature in a state of disarry (you also wear a felt smurf hat to protect your head and keep it cool).
The science bit aside, the Banya experience is unique. Instead of sweating it out in a sauna without any respite from the heat, time spent here involves plenty of breaks in the salon where you can order authentic Russian food and drinks, all made from organic ingredients. A must-try is the fermented beetroot juice, which will help to rehydrate you inbetween sessions. I’m told the crayfish are excellent too. This spa isn’t all about wellness; the salon also serves beer and vodka and I’m told some clients come to relieve a hangover, while others pop in to get one: either way you’re at liberty to pace your experience in your own time. There are no set treatment slots – just give a nod when you’re ready – and super-friendly staff is always on call to guide you.
It wouldn’t be a real Banya without trying a couple of the traditional treatments (not just the vodka). First up is parenie, a traditional and invigorating thermal treatment using venik – a leafy and fragrant bundle of birch, oak or eucalyptus twigs. Lying in the banya while a man with a gloriously proud belly slaps me all over with leaves is a novel way to get high. With every waft of the venik, it feels like a dragon is breathing on me, releasing the gorgeous aroma of a forest deep in Russia, while my body is buzzing with a million vibrations. Parenie boosts blood circulation and relieves tension and stress, whilst prepping the skin for a stimulating dip into the plunge pool. Once your body hits the cold water adrenalin and stress hormones are released leaving you simultaneously invigorated ad relaxed.
After more beetroot juice I’m back into the banya for another sweat before heading to the hammam for a coffee and honey full body scrub. My designated Russian mama shows no mercy as she sloughs my skin into submission and (fingers crossed) blasts any cellulite into oblivion. The scent of fresh espresso is everywhere and I feel like a newborn by the time I emerge for another chill in the salon. I’m here on a mixed day (which means bikinis are obligatory) but if you fancy getting your kit off, there are designated male and female sessions in the schedule.
Some clients spend the whole day here, and after a couple of hours I can understand why: this space is designed for you to take life at leisure whilst simultaneously indulging yourself in all manner of ways. It’s totally addictive and so authentic (complete with Russian staff) that I feel like I’ve left London for a sojourn in the Motherland and I never want to come home – vashee zda-ró-vye!