Full Steam Ahead
I am lying face down, completely naked, on a white towel on the second floor of a eucalyptus-scented Russian-style sauna. A man wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a beanie and a wool condom is vigorously thrashing my back with a bundle of dried leaves, pausing only to dip them into a red plastic bucket of scalding water. The room is heated to nearly 190 degrees. Each breath I take in is oppressively labored, and the whipping I’m enduring at the hands of the masseur isn’t particularly gentle. As he shoves the damp bundle of leaves and scratchy sticks against my raw and red bum for the nth time, I close my eyes and wonder, “How did I end up here?” Oh, that’s right, I’m here voluntarily.
I’m at Archimedes Banya – San Francisco’s only true Russian bathhouse.
I’d heard of Archimedes Banya just weeks earlier, when a friend, relaxed beyond belief after a visit to the Hunters Point bathhouse, stumbled into my house with the word “banya” (a sort of blanket term for a variety of Eastern European baths) lingering on his lips. In my mind, bathhouses conjure up a jumbled collage of seedy, lukewarm bathtubs, bodily fluids, and thick, undulating steam. Spas, like Kabuki Springs in Japantown, sure. Bathhouses, well…. “I know, I know,” my friend smiled at me. “I felt the same way. But please, just look at the website.” So I did. Peppered with a slew of surreal photos and postmodern skews on Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Archimedes Banya website promises a brightly colored smorgasbord of hot baths and saunas featuring exotic sounding amenities like hammam and venik platza. I am definitely intrigued enough to feel like I need to experience Archimedes Banya for myself. But maybe not by myself.
I convince my friend Jon-Marc to join me on a Wednesday afternoon. Together, we make our way to a long, fairly dismal stretch of Hunters Point festooned with abandoned buildings. Archimedes Banya is in a generically modern-looking maroon and taupe building, which looks better suited for a Jamba Juice location than a steam-soaked den of excess.
We enter and find ourselves in a waiting room freshly stenciled with flowering leaves and decorated with an assortment of line drawings of naked women. A man who turns out to be the general manager greets us in a voice slightly flecked with a Russian accent. Jon-Marc and I are nervous, and we smile and nod as we sign two-page waivers that release Archimedes Banya from any legal action resulting from the laundry list of injuries one can inflict on themselves amongst slippery floors and intense heat. He hands us towels and embroidered robes and leads us down the stairs.
The majority of the space is clothing-optional, and because we’re here on Wednesday between noon and 6 p.m., the manager explains we’ll be surrounded only by naked men. If visitors aren’t down with being in the buff, or in the company of sweaty, naked people, one can also enjoy all the services in a clothing-required area.
Jon-Marc and I hit the locker room and emerge into the clothing-optional hot tub area, robes wrapped loosely around our decidedly not-naked bodies. Harshly angular, modern sculptures of fish people stare down at us from above. Stairs and doorways surround us, leading to a maze of hallways and rooms. There is no sign of any other patron – we are entirely alone, the hiss of the bath filters is the only other sound. Two strapping spa attendants with thick Russian accents smile at us, reminding us that if we have any questions, to just ask. Feeling a bit unsure of what to do next, we enter the hot tubs.
I exhale audibly as I sink into the 106-degree cauldron, the momentary scald forcing the air out of me. I want to fall asleep right then and there. After 20 minutes, tendrils of dizziness are wrapping themselves around my brain. My body radiating with heat, I pop out of the tub. It’s time to cool down. I lurch upstairs to a cold plunge pool. I’m well versed in the invigorating effects of plunging into a cold bath, but still I hesitate before submerging my entire body into the bubbling tub of 46-degree water. My head goes under, my eyes shoot open, and a muted shout escapes my mouth before I gasp, exploding out of the water. Between clenched teeth I can only manage to say, “Oh, my god, let’s hit the sauna.”
Archimedes Banya has a sauna like none I have ever seen. It’s a Russian banya, a multilevel affair that slimly rises up sixteen feet around an enormous ceramic stove full of negative-ion emitting Finnish rocks that pulse with soft heat (around 170–190F, with less than 30% humidity). Wooden benches are found on each level, the air growing hotter each level up. Shivering from the cold plunge, Jon-Marc and I march up to the top floor, the thick heat blanketing our bodies. We sit silent with our eyes closed, feeling each individual drop of sweat fall from our bodies, enjoying the gentle aroma of eucalyptus that pervades everything.
Ten minutes later, my companion and I are immersed in perhaps the most intense steam room experience of my entire life. The hammam is a tiny, tiled room with a small fan that fills the space with lava-hot, eucalyptus-infused steam. Our lungs and noses and eyes are immersed in a thick, moist steam that reminds me, pleasantly, of the exhalation of a menthol cigarette. The steam is so hot, dense, and full of medicinal scent that I can breathe in only short, sharp breaths through my mouth, the herbaceous tang firing against the back of my throat. The heat crushes against every part of me in a strangely pleasurable fashion, but I can take only four minutes of it. I need to cool down again. I exit the hammam to find the relief of a lukewarm dipping pool in the next room.
As I’m stepping out of the room, I run into a fully naked elderly man strolling out of the banya, his back covered in what looks to be tiny bits of wet leaves. An attendant follows after him, covered only in a sheen of sweat, a towel, and a traditional banya hat (the wool condom mentioned earlier). I stop and stare just long enough for the attendant to catch my eye. He holds up a sodden pile of sticks and asks, “You want try platza venik?” I sure do.
Back in the Russian banya again, I’m sitting on the highest level awaiting the attendant who’s pouring spoonfuls of water into a dark cabinet beneath the heated rocks. The room contracts with heat. While the attendant tosses water onto the coals, I meekly ask, “Do you want me to get naked?” “Yes,” he barks. “Get naked, lie face down on towel.” Five minutes later he’s holding two veniks (bundles of dried eucalyptus branches and leaves used to exfoliate the skin and get the blood flowing), one in each hand, and asks me if I’m ready. I gulp, and nod. For the next seven minutes my enthusiastic masseur beats my completely naked body with the branches. He pauses only to shout, “Feel good?” and “Smell,” when he presses the densely scented leaves to my face. The venik is scratchy and soft and hot and soothing all at the same time, and each smack or rub of the leaf bundle brings a new explosion of heat. Every breath draws in a dollop of burning, eucalyptus air. At one point he flips me over and starts beating me about the chest, legs, and everything in between. Amongst the slaps I think to myself, “This is easily the first time I’ve had my genitalia beaten on with dried leaves by another man.” And then just like that, it’s done. The attendant says, “Finished. Be careful on the steps,” and walks out.
I gather myself and find my way to the clothing-optional rooftop deck, where my companion is already reclining on a striped chair. I lie down on my own chair and look at the overcast sky. Sure, it’s 55 degrees, and the views afforded are the gray chop of the Bay and the looming crush of the projects, but I’m completely relaxed. The hustle and bustle of urban life a distant memory, it certainly feels like I’ve escaped to some exotic world. And really, when it comes to the banya, that’s all that matters.
Archimedes Banya is located at 748 Innes Avenue in Hunters Point. It’s open Wednesday and Thursday, noon to midnight; Friday, noon to 2 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to midnight. Wednesday, from noon to 6 p.m., the clothing optional area is reserved for men only; Thursday, during the same hours, is clothing optional for the ladies. A basic banya pass, including access to all the steamy delights will run you $30 (first time visitors get a discounted $25 dollar rate). Traditional Russian food (I tried the borscht and the dried vobla fish and was impressed by both) is offered in the café, and, pending a liquor license, beer will be flowing shortly. And if you want to really do it yourself, Archimedes Banya sells a pack of five veniks for $16.