A Unique Banya Experience in Riga
Saunas are an integral part of the culture in countries with harsh climates, and both Latvia and Russia are no exceptions. In Latvia, the sauna, known as “pirts” in Latvian, is such an important part of household culture that it was common for every household to have its own pirts in the house, a tradition that continues even today in the countryside. The features of the traditional sauna and its popularity are also similar in Russia, where it is called баня (banya). In the city of Riga, due to the rapid pace of development, not every house can have its own bathhouse, so public pirts are available instead. I visited one called “Pirts No.1,” located in the neighborhood of Plavnieki in the east of Riga, where I was able to experience the banya/pirts traditions.
Public saunas separate different genders. In Pirts No.1, this is done by allowing in only males or females in a day. Be sure to call them up check if you decide to check it out! Entry costs up to 13 euros, with student discounts available. Conveniently, multiple buses run from the Riga city center to close to the banya in Plavnieki regularly, such as the 20, 51 and 52 buses.
Upon arriving at the sauna, the first steps involve undressing and taking a shower. Afterwards, you are then allowed to get to business – into the sauna room! I received a felt hat and slippers at Pirts No.1 to protect my hair and feet from the intense heat and humidity of the Russian banya. Another interesting feature of the banya is the ‘venik’. The venik is a bunch of tree branches or herb twigs tied together with their leaves still intact. The venik is then used to lightly beat the body in the sauna room, so as to remove dead skin and release the herbal substances in the venik. I can personally attest to the exfoliating benefits of the banya, as even without a venik I could rub off some dead skin during my sauna experience.
The humid air inside the sauna is created by throwing water onto hot stones, producing steam. Usually, a banya has multiple seating heights, with the highest seating area receiving the full impact of the steam, which can feel quite intense. According to tradition, after spending some time in the sauna room to sweat out toxins, one should immediately plunge into a pool of cold water or, even better, snow, during the winter. The Russians and Latvians repeat the process of alternating between heat and cold a few times for best results. Only then can you rest and have something to drink or eat. After the alternating heat and cold sessions, my muscles felt so relaxed that I felt weak and sleepy.
What I learned and was surprised by at the pirts was that the sauna was a social experience! As it was my first time there, the old ladies enjoying themselves at the banya were very friendly and more than happy to point me in the right direction when I asked for guidance, even offering me shampoo at the end. They explained many steps of the procedure to me even as we sat amid the stifling heat in the sauna room together, and asked after our experience in Latvia. My friends and I were practicing our Russian skills with them. One of them even showed us photos of her grandchildren living in the UK, and kindly told us how to go about the sauna.
For anyone unfamiliar with such traditions, this cultural experience is definitely worth a try! Having never been to a pirts before, I had no idea what to expect, but the experience turned out to be absolutely fascinating. I left feeling refreshed, and I’m eager to return soon to ponder upon life amid the humidity of the boiling-hot air. The banya in Riga is such a unique experience to get to know local culture and people, be sure to check it out!
С лёким паром! (Enjoy your bath; a common expression used at the banya)
Yeap, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Riga
(Photo credits to the author, taken at an exhibit of a traditional Latvian pirts at the Latvian Open-Air Ethnographic Museum)