Did you ever have one of those days where you wake up and wonder what you are going to do today? Then you decide to take a free walking tour of St. Petersburg and you meet a really cool guide named Julia (pronounce “Ulia”) who not only shows you the sights, but then invites anyone who is interested to join her at the Russian banya (sauna) afterwards? Then, at the metro station, she meets up with a UN worker named Wanda, based in Africa but here on vacation, and she comes along too? So then you find yourself in front of this little nondescript yellow building with no signage at all, but you follow her in because, well, you’ve come this far, and inside you meet three of her friends, big Russian guys that know about as much English as you know Russian, but it is ok because Julia translates back and forth and it turns out that they are quite friendly and as curious about America as you are about Russia? Then you spend the next two hours hanging out in the banya, chatting and slapping your skin with birch branches as the steam pours off the rocks and the temperature hovers around 90C (That’s 194F, by the way. I think they usually go hotter, but kept the temperature down to have mercy on Wanda and me), periodically going out into the adjacent pool to cool down before you ignite like a wooden match? Then, after saying goodbye to your new Russian friends, you head to a cafe with Julia and Wanda and, with Julia acting as menu translator, you order a pot of berry tea (Russians love tea), a big bowl of cold borsht (beet soup) and little red (legal) caviar on the side? Then you talk to Julia and Wanda for another couple of hours about Africa, India, Thailand, Perestroika (a painful and difficult transition for a lot of people) and life in St. Petersburg now? And finally, after quick goodbye hugs on the metro and tentative plans to maybe meet up in Moscow, you get back to the hostel, where they are making pancakes (what we think of as crepes), all you can eat for a small donation, and you strike up a conversation with a German girl from Dresden, studying to be an actress, whose great-grandfather was in WWII and was actually on the Eastern front, fighting the Russians and who lived in the GDR (East Germany) for 40 years, before the wall fell? Have you had a day like that? If not, I would highly recommend that you get one, because, well, it was kinda awesome:-)
The gang from the banya is pictured above: Viktor, Julia, Wanda, Vasya, and Sergei
The walking tour was sponsored by Petersburg Free Tour.