Russia Feb. 2014 – ok, not really

No, we couldn’t actually get to Sochi, but watching the Olympic skiers from the hot tub at the Russian bath house was a pretty sweet alternative.  But it didn’t start out that way, no siree.  Before the Russian experience, there was despair.

Plan A as I envisioned then Googled

Design, Design Kempinski Hotel With Indoor Swimming Pool: Luxurious Look of Relaxing Indoor Pool DesignsPlan B, same, looks great huh?

We had a wonderful Plan A involving a friend’s country house in rural New Jersey and I had visions of writing about the Victorian architecture and the wintry beauty as the children ran around and we ate too much in front of a fireplace.  But with the weather, the long unplowed country driveway was not functional and we had to consider a Plan B.  As the snow began again, I wasn’t too sad about not driving to rural NJ and on an unplowed driveway.  I casted around for an idea and I decided we would stay at a local hotel with a pool and pretend we were somewhere exotic.  We could still get away together for the night, and we could swim despite the raging arctic winter!  The kids added swimsuits to their already-packed bags.  I spent close to two hours on priceline and calling hotel desks with disappointing results: several expensive hotel options, two fairly affordable ones with pools, and none in my price range with a pool and with vacancies.  It was getting later and with great sadness I decided to bail on the whole thing.  

Default Plan – ugh!

The situation was bleak.  The default was staying home surrounded by laundry and other chores, with the leak in my bedroom that is getting closer and closer to my bed since the roofer can’t get to it until the snow is gone…then I remembered the Russian Spa.


The weekend was saved!  Thanks to me (in pink spa sandals), Rafael (with the girls above), and the Russian Spa.

I had heard about the place from a friend during a discussion about alternative things to do on Christmas Day when tree/presents/family are wearing thin, or maybe you don’t celebrate Christmas, and everything is closed.  It turns out, as I learned from Master Russian, that the tradition  of ба́ня – banya (Russian sauna and steam bath) is a wholesome family affair and a viable option, even on December 25, and there is a facility not too far from where I live.  The place we went to charges $35 for the day – but kids under 10 are free!!!!  Fiercely had plans, so it was just myself and five under-10s.  Yes, we managed to pick up two extra girls – sisters with very trusting parents- and off we went.  If you are calculating, that makes me the only fee-paying adult.  I can’t condone their treatment of Pussy Riot or their anti-gay laws, but when it comes to hot tubs, God bless the Russians!

В ба́не помы́лся — за́ново роди́лся.
Washing up in the banya is like being born again.

How can I describe this place?  Well, it was next to a bowling alley and really didn’t look like much from the outside.  I had more than a little trepidation at herding in five children and only paying one fee.  But from the minute we walked in, we were welcomed and set loose – I truly felt we were out of the USA.  The guy at the desk said things like “Are you sure you want to come today?  It’s so crowded” and let us look around a little first.  Here is what we saw.


The place had this Greco-Roman thing going on near the ceiling, complete with “windows” looking onto painted blue skies.  There were plastic tables and chairs around a large pool.  True to the man’s report, the tables were all full and it didn’t look like we would get one.  But no one was in the pool!  Writing this now, it occurs to me that someone more cautious might have questioned this, but after the dashed hopes of a hotel pool and with five excited kids, and me having driven around for over an hour (part of the time lost and nervously phoning Mr. Fantastic at home on the computer for what amounts to poor man’s GPS), we were all like “POOL!! YES!!” and I paid the guy at the desk.  For the record, we did see others use the pool later, I used it myself, but I think most people do not go there for the pool.

I kind of skulked in and looked for a place to unobtrusively place our things – with six of us we had a lot of coats, boots, etc. – and that is when we met Rafael.  He offered us a shelf back by the linens for our gear then suddenly became elated and pointed to a table where some guests were leaving.  Before I could say “the kids don’t really need robes but thank-” he had five small ones at the ready and one for me, too.  He showed us the bins of pink plastic sandals and we all partook.  He gave us a tour of the 2 steam rooms, the sauna, the cold tub, the showers and the main room with pool and hot tubs.  He appeared unfazed that I had so many children with me and naive to the litigiousness of this country as he showed us the different areas of extremes in temperature and said the kids could roam freely.  “They’ll love it!  Kids are comfortable everywhere.” Rafael enthused.  The lax vibe seemed to extend to the clientele because not once did anyone look askance as the kids went from pool to hot tub to sauna.  As someone who has taken my kids at every age from newborn to age 13 to countless adventures like this, I have to say that this is notable.  And welcome.  I began to relax and enjoy myself.


Truly getting into the pool, Cleverly and friend watching the Olympics, the kids swimming, another view of that decorative ceiling thing

В ба́не ве́ник доро́же де́нег.
A bath-broom in the banya is worth more than money.

So with everyone so happy and relaxed, why were people hitting each other with bunches of branches?  let’s consult Master Russian again.

What do you need a venik in the banya for?

Russian family

  © Shchekalev

At Russian banya there are special bath brooms (ве́ник) that are used. These brooms or veniks are bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together from some kind of tree—usually they are from birch or oak trees. The veniks are dipped into cold water and then smacked briskly all over the body. There is a special person who is responsible for this, called banschik (ба́нщик). But usually people don’t need banschik’s help because groups of friends typically go together and are able to smack each other with veniks.

So there, it’s therapeutic.  Lucky us, a friendly young Russian couple offered their venik to us and we tried it out.  Personally, I enjoyed it, and I know Cleverly had fun smacking me briskly with the branches.  The couple mentioned that the branches are imported from Russia because though the same trees grow here “they aren’t as good”.

So we spent over 5 hours enjoying the banya, the pool and hot tubs, and the people watching (lots of older men, tattooed youth, some hung-over college kids, a few other children, and a couple with an adorable two-month-old), not to mention the Olympics broadcast.  I have to agree that  Ба́ня здоровит, разгово́р весели́т.
The banya makes you healthy, it stimulates conversation.  People were so relaxed and friendly to me and the kids.  My skin felt great.  I loved the hot sauna followed by the pull-chain shower that was cold enough to be icemelt from the Kolka Glacier.  I kept thinking what a better mother and what a better person I could be if I could do this regularly.     What a great day.  Sometimes the best trips are unexpected and local and preceded by disappointment, and that makes found adventure all the better.