One sunny Saturday afternoon, a group of us from SRAS traveled just outside of Saint Petersburg to go to our local guide Sergey’s dacha.
A dacha is a house that many Russian people keep outside the main cities that they live in (where they might own an apartment as well). Dachas are often quite simple and passed down from generation to generation. They allow an escape from hectic city lives for the beautiful countryside. Russians use dachas to relax, garden, and especially, to use their banyas!
When we arrived to Sergey’s dacha, it was still light outside, and so we went on a walk around the small neighborhood. He told us that his neighbors are divided between people who come occasionally, and ones who live there full time. It had been snowing a little, and there was a beautiful layer of white snow on the ground. The dachas ranged from very basic and bare “huts” to large, almost mansion-like homes.
When we came back to Sergey’s dacha, we went straight to the banya. The world banya stems from Greek origins, meaning “cleansing of a body with the help of steam.” Some linguists believe that the word is actually taken from the Latin word balneum, which means “something that makes pain and sadness go away.” I think in true Russian tradition, both meanings apply.
This banya was very typical, with a room for sitting and resting, the middle room for rinsing and acclimating to the heat a little, and finally, the hot room. We came into the sitting room, and started to eat a little. Sergey and his wife had prepared meat, potatoes, veggies, and lavash (a thin, Central Asian bread). Being used to going to banya at home (my father built one when I was young), I knew if I ate too much before the banya, I would feel sick, so I decided to go straight into the hot room. And oh boy, was it hot!
The process of using a banya goes something like this: you sit in the hot room for a few minutes, come out, splash some water on your face (or if you are brave, go jump in the snow or a cold river or pond), and then sit in the sitting room for a few minutes. Then, repeat as many times as you want. Somewhere in these reps, you get “beat” with a веник (venik). A venik is a bundle of birch tree leaves and branches that are soaked in hot water and often essential oils, and then used to clean and exfoliate the skin by slapping them against the skin. Sergey was a master at this, and coming out of the banya, you felt like a new born baby.
After the banya, we went back into the house for tea and cakes. Sergey played the accordion, and we all sang along to Kalinka, a traditional Russian song. After this, Sergey surprised us with karaoke! While I’m not the biggest fan of karaoke, I sang along to the songs, and even did a solo of Rasputin by Boney M.
This by far was the most relaxing day I’d spent abroad as part of my program in St. Petersburg and one of my favorites as well!