Who needs the sun when you have the banya?
Morning football со своей командой (with my team) is a weekly highlight here in Saint Petersburg. Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the year, we meet at 8 am close to the Smolensky cemetery on Vasilyevsky Island to play five-a-side. Outdoors during summer and, luckily, indoors during winter. Around once a month the team gathers in the next-door Banya (Russian sauna) to relax and enjoy a few beers or some kvas, alongside some traditional Russian snacks. Thursday was one of those days.
Having no idea of what to expect, I asked the captain of my team – Igor – what to bring there. He grinned and answered: “you should bring a towel… and a couple of beers”. Thus, I picked up a towel from home and grabbed a couple of Baltika’s from a small kebab shop near the metro station Primorskaya, before walking there. The banya was located inside a cabin-like building that was equipped with a pool table, a long dining table, a television showing football and, of course, showers and the banya.
Unlike me, who only brought some cans of beer, the Russians came prepared. Smoked mackerol, dried vobla (a fish from the Caspian Sea google told me), sardines and a huge piece of dried pike from Khanty-Mansiysk were just some of the different types of uncooked fish they tempted me with (you can see the mackerol and dried pike on the picture). I admit it did not look very appealing to me at first and I was hoping to get away with tasting small bits of each, pretending I had just had dinner. Things did not go according to the plan and about ten seconds after the fish was on the table one of the older guys in the team made sure I did not feel hungry anytime soon.
Scepticism would soon be replaced with enthusiasm for the dishes that used to be – but are not anymore – very popular in my native country Norway. The salty, dry икра (roe) found inside the vobla, that combined a sensation of melting on the tongue with a weird chewy concistency was the one thing that stood out for me. Try it if you ever get the chance – you will not regret it! In fact, there was only one thing that made me think “I would never buy this” and those were the crisps with salmon and sour cream taste. Isolated I love all three of them, but the mix of salmon, sour cream and crisps may be one of the worst I have ever encountered. Stick to salmon for dinner and crisps for snacks.
The full banya experience
A visit to the banya would not be complete without actually going into the banya, and equipped only with some kind of woolen hat and a towel to sit on, I was accompanied by two banya veterans, Vitaly and Sergey. Round one was okay and not too challenging. I will admit it was a bit warmer than the sauna in my gym back home, but nothing to complain about. After cooling down, having some more fish and watching some minutes of Krasnodar’s Europa League qualifier against Red Star Belgrade, we went for a more intense round two.
Sergey told me to lay down on a towel in the banya. Not quite sure of what I was getting myself into, I did. He picked up two whisks made of birch branches from a bucket of hot water, sprinkled some of it on my back and switched between spanking and dragging them along my back and legs. Although it felt a bit weird at first– laying naked on my belly being spanked by birch branches by another man – it definitely had a relaxing and refreshing feel to it. Vitaly said it would also help against mosquito bites, which I had a lot of at the time – win-win. After that, we drank beer, talked about life, football, girls and what else there is to talk about. Definitely one of my best evenings in Saint Petersburg so far.
If you ever go to Russia and have the chance, you should definitely pay a visit to the banya!