Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Getting Steamy in Europe

In the absence of hot water to submerge in, I find lolling in steam a good alternative. Great for the skin, relaxing for the muscles and all-round soothing to the soul. Unless, of course, you’re in Russia. In which case it can just be traumatic (although very relaxing in hindsight).
The following are a few of my adventures in steam. Honestly, some were more adventurous than others… And if you’re not comfortable with public nudity, these are not the travel experiences for you…

London’s Turkish Baths

My most recent steaming experience was in the recently refurbished Turkish baths in London. Let me make it clear from the start: these are not hammams. They are Victorian England’s idea of what a Turkish bath is or was, dating from around 1860. Basically they are saunas. But with dry air, which distinguishes them from the steam of the Russian banja, the Turkish hammam and the Finnish sauna (where water can be ladled on to create steam, steam and more steam).
Steam yourself on the path to relaxation
Steam yourself on the path to relaxation
A number of the Victorian Turkish baths in London have recently been restored and are run by local councils so, unlike many things in London, a visit is affordable (especially for local residents). Compare this to London’s many ‘day spas’, which undo any relaxing benefits the instant you have to pay your bill (for example, The Sanctuary in Covent Garden…).
I’ve been to all three now: The Porchester Spa near Paddington Station and spa LONDON in Bethnal Green. The theory of these baths is steam then cold plunge, hot rooms, cold plunge. And although it can be painful, go for the cold plunge-pool not the shower – the shower is for wimps…
The special thing about these baths is the series of three hot rooms going from the coolest (the Tepidarium) to the hottest (the Laconium.) Definitely more Roman than Turkish, in name and practice. Sometimes there are lounge chairs to recline on in these rooms, sometimes tiled benches. In the Tepidarium you can lounge around and read a book. In the Calidarium you just sweat.
You can have a massage if you book ahead, and again it won’t take up your whole week’s food-and-travel budget. And if you’ve been pounding the streets of London, you’re going to need to take some time out, sweat some of that grime off your skin, and relax those weary muscles. As a bonus, you get to see a bit of London’s history in these revamped bathhouses. Don’t expect luxury, what you’ll get is slightly confusing old buildings with stairs, narrow hallways and these fabulous oases hidden away in corners of London.

Finland’s Saunas

Philippa dreams of a sauna in the woods...
Philippa dreams of a sauna in the woods...
This is the classic sauna experience, the one most of us are familiar with. A small wooden-hut style room, with a big heater of ‘rocks’, wooden benches to sit on and a bucket of water for ladling over the hot rocks to create steam. Right? Well, yes. Unless you’re in Finland.
Let me immediately say I am no expert here. I have only been to Finland once and it was for a work conference so my sauna-time was limited. Hence I visited one place, in Helsinki. What I really long to do is get out into the countryside and have a sauna then a roll in the snow. That, to me, would be bliss. Although I have to say seeing the sea frozen in Helsinki was pretty special.
After the end of the conference, between packing up and rushing to the airport, I managed to fit in a visit to Urjönkadun Uimahalli (Yrjönkatu 21b, opposite the Hotel Torni, which has a great little bar right at the top with good cocktails and views of Helsinki). There’s a swimming pool and electric saunas, but these aren’t of the small wooden hut variety – these are stadium seating, huge rooms. Finland gets very dark and cold, so in winter the Finns steam enmasse. The heater was so big there was a hose for making steam.
But the best bit was the little changing huts lining the upstairs balconies, overlooking the pool. After swimming and steaming we sat here at a little table, had tea and cakes; we could have had a small sleep, if only there’d been time. Six missed calls and texts from angry colleagues kind of ruined the bliss and hurried us to the airport. But I’m glad I got to go, if even so briefly.

Russia’s Banja

The extreme sport of steaming in Russia. Especially in Moscow without speaking Russian. Alone. Yes, I am dedicated to my relaxation.
And finally, I understood what those people by the roadside selling twigs were all about; these are the birch branches for slapping yourself while enduring the extreme heat of the banja. Apparently it increases circulation. And also smells nice. I have to say I was so traumatised by the heat, I couldn’t smell a thing.
Banjas have a banja-mistress whose job it is to heat the steam room to the ideal temperature. Try going in at the wrong time, as I did, and be yelled at. After that, I followed everyone else. Although when it was time to steam and they all raced up into the tiled steam room and up the stairs to the hot, hot platform above the heater, I gallantly made it half way up the stairs before thinking my head would catch fire. I did manage to crawl onto the platform for a while, lying flat to stay under the most ferocious layer of heat. Surprisingly, being laughed at in Russian sounds the same as anywhere else in the world.
The banja mistress will also, for a fee, slap you with the birch branches, then help you stagger to a bench outside to collapse. She also seemed to be taking joy in covering people in mud, then hosing them off with a high-powered cold water gun. I was scared of her.
Definitely either buy a hat (very cute conical white things) or get the extra towel to wrap around your hair – it fries in the heat. Also, if you are going to brave the birch branches – you need to soak them in a bucket of cold water before use. Don’t ask me why, I speak no Russian except ‘Nyet’ – useful when the banja mistress approaches with birch branches or a hose.
I did manage to negotiate having a soap scrub massage, which was thorough! And also a cup of tea afterwards, which was reviving. I went to the Sanduny Banja, the most famous in Moscow and very historical and beautiful. Especially if you are a man – the most special parts of the building are reserved for men. The women’s area is definitely less glamorous, but still totally worth doing. Not for the faint hearted though – and I mean that physically as well as metaphorically.

Turkey’s Hammam

Another extreme adventure in relaxation. I went to two while in Istanbul: Cemberlitas and Cagaloglu (read Philippa’s post about Istanbul’s hammams). Without any Turkish, it was challenging although there is some English spoken and signage in English.
turkish hammam istanbul cagaloglu hamami Cemberlitas hammam
The main (male) bathing area at Cagaloglu Hamami, in Istanbul
But you need to have faith and patience as you lie on the hot marble slab waiting for someone to beckon you over for a scrub. Again, it’s not for the modest – naked except for bikini bottoms.
The scrubbing is thorough – it’s all about getting the blood flowing and the old skin shed. And you end up reduced to a child again as you are pushed around and your hair washed. Water everywhere. Lots of chattering women.
And the interior architecture of these hammams makes it all worthwhile. Again, the men’s areas are more salubrious than the women’s.

Amsterdam’s Sauna Fenomeen

This one is unique – only in Amsterdam. Sauna Fenomeen is a sauna located in a squat: a once vacant building taken over many years ago by squatters and now a thriving community. It’s not far from the Vondelpark, a major Amsterdam icon and great place to hang out in summer or ride a bike through in winter. The sauna is a few streets away, in through a gate and down between a couple of buildings, into a courtyard full of bicycles. It’s quite well signposted.
There’s one steam room and one dry sauna. A cold plunge pool and a small garden to relax in when you’re fully steamed. All nude. Mixed changing rooms. But very, very cheap. Take your own towel or you can hire one. And there’s a little café – good teas and snacks. Magazines to read. But the best bit is upstairs – sleeping mats. Cheap vinyl floor mats with small cushions – this is no luxury spa but it is so relaxing. And somehow more so because of it’s very lack of pretensions.
You can have a massage but my experience is that the therapists were a little inexperienced so it’s a bit of a hit or miss prospect.
Okay, inspired now. Off to Ironmonger Row. London in winter is cold and dark – I need to steam. Now.