rooms bring Russian
MacWilliams fans steam bathers at Southampton Spa in Southampton, Bucks
(CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
GALLERY: Wearing felt hats to protect their
Michael Matza, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: November 02, 2014
One in an
occasional series on America's changing face.
hurls a pail's worth of water into the huge, hellishly hot brick oven.
too hot to fog diffuses in the room as men and women in bathing suits
Banya veterans scurry to the highest of its
three benches, where the temperature can exceed 200 degrees.
Some wear felt
hats to prevent scalps from scorching. Some carry veniki,
branches used to whip skin to a rosy hue, increasing the sensation of
Bryon MacWilliams uses
a scented wand shaped like a pool skimmer
to sweep the hottest air near the ceiling onto glistening devotees.
you," several gasp. " Spasibo."
Moscow, or a dacha
in Russia's countryside?
No, closer to
home: Southampton Spa in Southampton, Bucks County, a magnet for local
immigrants with a passion for Russia's ritual pastime.
the immigration we've got people from all the former Soviet Republics,
Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, all over," said
Lebedinsky, 66, who staffs the desk where towels and robes are
signs are in English and the curly Cyrillic of written Russian.
to socialize, eat traditional foods, and speak their own language,"
Lebedinsky, who emigrated from Moldova 37 years ago and like many of
immigrants lives in Northeast Philadelphia.
Just like back home
The spa bills
itself as greater Philadelphia's only authentic Russian bathhouse,
with a restaurant serving smoked fish, an ice-cold plunge pool, and a
where super-heated clients roll in the snow.
It opened seven
years ago, is as big as a hangar, and costs $25 for all-day admission.
The arrival of
cold weather means "the season is on" for prime steaming, Lebedinsky
said, although true devotees enjoy banya
even when it's blazing
Census, in its most recent data, estimates that 25,000 people in
Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania and
Burlington, and Gloucester Counties in South Jersey speak Russian at
president of New World Association, a two-decades-old immigrant-support
on Bustleton Avenue, thinks the number of Russian and former Soviet
immigrants in the region could be much higher than the Census estimate
count at least 10,000 Ukrainians and others who arrived in and around
Philadelphia after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Bustleton, and Rhawnhurst and parts of Bucks County, "Ukrainian and
Russian immigrants - stemming initially from refugee resettlement in
in the 1990s - dominate the mix of foreign born," notes a 2008
Institution report on change in the region.
Krakopolskaya, 46, an analyst at TD Bank who came to Philadelphia from
Petersburg in 2002, said she visits the Southampton banya
every six weeks.
She was there
on the recent night when MacWilliams, 48, and Konkin, 54, who was
Moscow, created a series of signature steams infused with garlic, mint,
aromatic oils. MacWilliams read excerpts from his book, With
Light Steam: A
Personal Journey Through the Russian Baths,
published last month.
Konkin, a banya
master, is expert at creating moist but not overly saturated steam.
his friends as "Grisha," he is a central figure in MacWilliams' book.
He was greeted warmly among the 50 or so people who turned out for the
included a traditional spread: blini, "herring in fur coats," black
peppered pig fat chased with vodka, and kvass,
a foamy drink made from
fermented rye bread.
The Southampton banya,
said Krakopolskaya, as she nibbled on the comfort food, reminds
her of the steam baths she took as a child on her family's dacha.
he is not a big fan of big steam. But when he visited the spa with a
three years ago, it rekindled memories of childhood, when his father
once a week "for sanitary purposes" because they
didn't have bathing facilities at home in Ukraine.
Irina Brown, an
internist now living in Silver Spring, Md., was raised in Kazakhstan.
her husband, Frank Brown, befriended MacWilliams, who grew up in
Gloucester County, and spent 12 years in Moscow as a journalist for
and British media, when the three lived in Russia and discovered their
passion for steam. The Browns, along with their son Savva, 11, attended
Irina said she
has always been passionate about banya,
and at one point she lay flat
and alone on a bench to get the maximum heat.
For Frank, who
was a Newsweek correspondent in Moscow, banya
is an acquired taste. In
the private banyas
of Russia, men and women steam together, often naked.
In the public banyas,
men and women steam nude but separately.
American," said Frank Brown, "all I could see was this homoerotic
environment - the steam, the whipping. It took me a long time to get
he said, he became such a fan "that I started going to church on
Wednesday, so I could go to banya
Now that's banya
Russian, and Eastern European Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia
| October 7, 2014 at 8:40 am
from Royal Cracovia | Photo by Neal Santos
Cinch. Even Dutch, Spanish and Belgian food is pretty easy to find
close to the
heart of Philly’s most tony neighborhoods. But for a long
time, this city has
also been home to a thriving community that brought all its borscht and
sausages along from the Old Countries. So if you’re looking
for a hit of
post-Glasnost melting-pot Euro cuisine ignored by the likes of Vetri,
and Starr, here are some good places to start.
and Turkish Baths
Yes, we are telling you to eat dinner at a bathhouse. There’s
delicate blintzes with fat red caviar, and
sweet-’n’-yeasty kvass on tap,
served along with other salty snacks in this Russian hangout featuring
room, two Jacuzzis, three styles of sauna, an icy plunge pool, and
showers that spray you from a dozen angles. 141 Second Street Pike,
more at http://www.phillymag.com/foobooz/2014/10/07/german-russian-eastern-european-restaurants-food-philadelphia/
Magazine Best of Philly -
Magazine Voted Best Bath Spa of 2011
the Turkish bath,
Russian bath, sauna, cold plunge pool, heated lap pool, barraging Swiss
sunbathing courtyard and juice bar can’t cure what ails you,
we know a few shrinks
you can call.
Second Street Pike,
Southampton, PA | 215-942-4646
Read more at http://www.phillymag.com/best-of-philly/southampton-spa/
Polec's World" airs Monday on Action News at 6:00 and Friday and Sunday
on Action News at 11:00.
(aired 03.13.06 6pm)
people seek out the soothing offerings of a luxury day spa to find
relaxation and relief from the stresses and tensions of the day.
let's be realistic folks, people like these guys, who really need
tension relief are probably not going to go for a misting of lavender
oil mixed with petunia pollen and butterfly tears. No they're more
likely to go for what they can get in that place there.
newly opened Southampton Spa, an old world style alternative featuring
classic Russian baths, Turkish baths, and Swiss showers. A virtual
United Nations of personal hygiene with rugged amenities that for
centuries soothed the aching muscles of farmers in Kiev after 14 hours
in field planting turnips.
Nayflesh/Southampton Spa: "None of spas in Philadelphia area don't have
anything like that so we decided to be the first one."
pools of ice water bring invigorating relief from a session in a hot
rock heated sauna that approaches souffle temperatures.
tradition...It's very hot...And we've got special hats for that. Your
hair gets hot. REALLY hot. Like boiling temperatures. The Turkish bath,
people like to come in when its at minimum 195. No, it doesn't sound
pleasant but finally I tried it&it's relaxing. Toxins come out,
it's good for blood pressure. And he does the special treatment called
"platza" treatment. It's a special oak leaf brush."
circulates the hot air or steam, enhancing skin tone and muscle
relaxation, which when alternated with ice water rinses and honey rubs
and massages using everything from strawberries and sour cream to other
traditional additives provides for a soothing yet invigorating
experience that continues to win over advocates.
going to take 5-10 years off your age. Believe me it's really pleasant
and you sleep like a baby I've got to add that too."
result of a proven centuries old health regimen of extreme heat
followed by extreme cold whose benefits continue to be heard across the
in the banya
thermometer on the sauna wall read 250 degrees, although the little
needle seemed broken, pinned at the top. But the air certainly felt
that I could ask anyone. I had lost the ability to speak as soon as I
walked into the Philadelphia area's first Russian banya,
or baths. The seat of my bathing suit burned on the wooden bench as my
body sent urgent messages upstairs, alerting the head to implement an
orderly, if belated, "Oops, we've wandered into an oven" exit strategy.
fought to ignore me. I wasn't going to wuss out five seconds into my
debut visit to the Southampton Spa, the newly opened Russian/Turkish
banya in Bucks County. To the Russian ancestors in the Kuriloff family
photo albums, baths such as these were important hygiene centers, not
to mention a pleasant change from watching another ice storm bury the
didn't want to let down my forefathers. And I had been to communal
baths before. Things soaked into my pores include essential minerals
from Marienbad and Budapest, sulfur from the Aeolian Islands, and salt
from the Dead Sea.
wrapped a towel around my head and hunkered down, breathing through the
cotton to cool the air and watching the sweat evaporate from my arms.
Long seconds ticked by. I checked the time.
been in for three minutes.
still thinking about my relatives, but not in a good way. "Uncle," I
the exterior, Southampton Spa appears as "Russian" as any office supply
or shipping warehouse lining the byways between Street Road and the
revamped ice-skating rink, it looks nothing like one of the
$300-per-night "water spas" serving skiers in Sun Valley or Vail either.
Southampton isn't really a spa, it's a schvitz
(Yiddish for "sweat," the word acts as both a verb and a noun). Banyas
(which are recorded in Russia as far back as the 11th century) first
proliferated in the Russian-Jewish communities of New York,
Philadelphia, Chicago and other large cities, mainly because tenements
lacked bathing facilities.
numbers dwindled as those immigrants assimilated, but a handful held on
as social and recreation centers: the 10th Street Baths on the Lower
East Side, Chicago's Division Street Baths - meeting places for tough
guys, poets and honest businessmen (and, more recently, women).
maintain a stripped-down aesthetic that makes them more guy-friendly
than your typical spa experience. At a spa, one pays hundreds of
dollars to get rubbed with rare mineral salts. At the schvitz,
one pays $4.95 for borscht and pickles.
brother Gabe - a north Philadelphia teacher in dire need of relaxation
- and I pulled up to Southampton on a Tuesday afternoon. Although a
"Grand Opening" sign flapped next to the door, there was a positively
un-American lack of pomp.
attendant greeted us as we came in the door and explained the system.
Entry costs $30, which buys you a day of sweating, soaking and
relaxing. Clothes and valuables are stored in a locker; unlike some
baths around the world, swim suits are required. We changed and exited
the locker room into the main room of the baths.
central area has high ceilings and was decorated with Greco-Roman
friezes. An antiseptic tile floor surrounded a small swimming pool and
a pair of Jacuzzis. The staff had set up plastic patio furniture around
the swimming area, and a snack bar sold fresh fruit and tea.
baths themselves consist of a Russian sauna, a Turkish sauna, a Finnish
sauna, and a steam room, listed in descending order of heat and
ascending order of humidity. Inside each spa were three rows of wooden
benches - the higher the hotter.
and I peered into the windows of each sauna. Nobody was around. I
looked at Gabe. He shrugged. We marched into the Russian sauna and sat
ourselves down on the highest bench.
a standard Finnish sauna, the pine or cedar box common to American
health clubs heated by an electric element enclosed in one corner,
Southampton's Russian baths are built around a brick oven that takes up
one-fifth of the room. The ovens enclose a half-ton of rock, heated
overnight by a gas flame.
raise and lower the temperature and humidity in the room by pouring
water onto the rocks from a big ladle. Signs in Russian and English
threatened dire consequences for any non-employee who touches the ladle.
the ladle? We could barely stand up as we stumbled back into the
hallway, visibly steaming and gasping, fishlike, for cool air.
us, the spa presented two different ways to cool down, both terrifying:
a plunge pool filled with icy water and a row of multi-headed Swedish
showers that looked suspiciously hard to control.
charged into a shower and yanked the handle. The effect was the same as
if he'd been blasted with chilled water from a high-pressure hose. Gabe
defended his head with his hands as the shower roared and water
overflowed the six-inch basin at his feet. Finally, he grabbed the
handle and pushed it up, shutting off the spray.
he said, as I convulsed with laughter.
avoid Gabe's mistakes, I chose the plunge pool. Slowly, I tried to
force myself into the icy waters, but I couldn't get past my waist -
until I slipped off the ladder and fell in.
Gabe's turn to laugh as I heaved myself out and toweled frantically.
Where water touched me, I turned bright pink.
recuperated poolside. Gabe ordered tea, and a server brought lemon,
honey and that other Russian sweetening favorite: jam.
with jam. That's how the Nyflash brothers roll. Steven and Russell
immigrated to the Philadelphia area with their family from Ukraine 10
years ago - long enough to develop a disgruntled attitude toward their
new home's sports franchises.
three years back, the brothers and a friend from New York were
lamenting that Philly had no banya where they could recuperate. Then
someone said, "Wait a second... ."
the un-nostalgic decor, the Nyflashes wanted a classic banya
experience. "The majority of the people who come are Russian," said
Steven. "I'd say 20 to 30 percent are Polish. Maybe another 10 percent
are Turkish. It's a European tradition, so people from Europe know
also pointed us toward the Turkish sauna, which has spigots and a
you feel you can't take it anymore, you put some water on yourself," he
splashing cool water on our heads and wrists, we lasted a more
respectable eight minutes in the 235 degrees.
found a few dried oak leaves left behind from someone's venik
- a fragrant bundle of soapy oak or birch branches bound together and
used by bath-goers to administer a sort of self-flagellating massage
that banya enthusiasts say improves circulation and eases muscle and
passed by, offering us a platza,
a vigorous type of rubdown with the branches delivered right there in
thought of a platza makes Jewish men of a certain age plotz with
nostalgia. "It's the tradition," said Nyflash. "You go to the banya,
you take the brush and you do the platza."
like it too, he said. "We had five or six American girls come in and
they all got one together. They were amazed. After they came out, they
couldn't even talk."
After our success in the Turkish sauna, we plunged like veterans, then
recuperated by reading poolside. In the corner, a flat-screen TV played
what looked like a Russian version of Judge
Judy. An unseen fellow bather
announced his first trip to the plunge pool with a high-pitched shriek.
time we made it to the Finnish sauna, the steam room felt like a hot
August day on Walnut Street - muggy, but tolerable. Thus trained, we
decided to give the Russian sauna another shot, slinking back in with
time, we sat on the lowest level, in the coolest air, with our heads
bowed and covered with towels. We slumped forward, hands on our knees.
minute or two, we discovered we could converse, if only a little bit at
a time. "I don't know how Russians do business in here," Gabe said.
didn't know either, but I was starting to see why they liked it. This
was our fifth stint inside a sauna today, and my muscles felt rubbery
and loose. My limbs felt as if the heat had stretched an extra couple
of inches out of them.
6:30 p.m., real-world deadlines started to cramp our relaxed attitude.
We weren't ready to leave.
close every night at 11:30, and I usually have a hard time moving
people out," Nyflash said. On weekends, the spa attracts maybe 200
people a day. On weekdays, it's more like 50.
that's without advertising, Nyflash added. "People who've never been
before? They try it once and they want to come back."
that there aren't side effects.
smell like bacon," Gabe's girlfriend, Val Klein, reported when we got
back to his house on Wharton Street. "I mean, hickory smoked."
pondered the irony. Who would have thought getting in touch with our
roots would make us un-kosher?
and oak. And chlorine. That's what we smelled like. I was going to tell
them. But then I fell asleep in my chair.
Russian Bath Is Hot New
Trend In Philly Area
Room Temperatures Hover Around 164
12:15 pm EDT May 2, 2006
12:46 pm EDT May 2, 2006
SOUTHAMPTON, Pa. --
10 medical reporter Cherie Bank looks at the hottest new trend in town.
In the Russian and Turkish bath at Southampton Spa, people sit in a
room where temperatures hover near 200 degrees and then they plunge
into a pool of ice-cold water.
Hot is just the way they like it at the Russian bath where the
temperature is a searing 164 degrees and climbing. It is so high that
people wear floppy wool hats to protect their hair.
"A typical person can usually stay here about five to eight or 10
minutes," said Steven Nayflesh, the owner of the Russian bath.
was born in Ukraine, where steam rooms and saunas are common. He knew
the time had come to bring the Russian bath to the United States.
"We will teach the Americans how to relax," Nayflesh said.
Of course, no bath is complete without a platza, in which the client is
flailed with leafy bundles of oak or birch.
The flailing is followed by a hot honey and salt scrub, cold water and
a cold rinse.
But the real treat comes from going straight from the sweltering sauna
to a dip in an icy-cold pool.
"People crazy about that," Nayflesh said.
Some say the dramatic shift from hot to cold is healthy because it
increases circulation and removes toxins from the body.
People with heart conditions or who are pregnant are warned to stay
"Feels great, actually. You feel like you are ready to do everything
you were born again -- reborn," one client said.
Are there really any health benefits to this? Doctors Bank spoke with
couldn't think of any, but one doctor did say that many Russian people
have been known to live well into their 90s and 100s.
The Southampton Spa is located at 141 2nd Street Pike and is open every
day. The entrance fee for the day is $30. For more information call
(215) 942-4646 or visit their Web site at www.southamptonspa.com
Bucks County spa turns up
Southampton - The Southampton Spa is hot.
it's-kinda-humid-out-today-so-I-better-crank-up-the-AC hot. It's more
like I-feel-like-my-face-is-on-fire-and-I'm-breathing-pure-heat hot.
enjoy 186-degree Fahrenheit temperatures — that's only 26
degrees less than the temperature at which your blood boils —
this is the place for you.
spa, which opened in February on Second Street Pike in Upper
Southampton, features the area's only Russian and Turkish baths. Early
on, most of the customers were Russians, though some daring Americans
are starting to give it a try, said Ukrainian native Russell Nayflesh,
who runs the spa with his brother Steven.
the week, most customers are men, but plenty of women and children
visit on weekends, Nayflesh said.
offers a regular sauna — usually set at a paltry 120 degrees
— a steam room, massage tables, a swimming pool and a
rest-aurant that serves Russian dishes.
major attractions, by far, are the two high-temperature baths. The heat
in the Russian bath is cranked up close to 200 degrees, while the
more-humid Turkish bath is a balmy 165.
Russians were ecstatic when the spa opened, Nayflesh said. Many had
been traveling to New York regularly to enjoy the familiar bath
a really, really old Russian tradition,” he said.
“Many of the [Russian] guys came down here and said, "Thank
you guys. Thank you for building this place.' ”
on the other hand, might need a couple of visits to warm up to the
first time I came here, I thought, "This is what it must be like to
have asthma,' ” said spa public relations staffer Andy Smith
as he sat in the Russian bath.
how a typical visit to the spa works:
change from street clothes into bathing suits, white robes and
usually bake in one of the baths for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Then
they walk out, take off their flip-flops, and plunge into a pool
— with a temperature of about 50 degrees — or take
a cold shower. The contrast in temperature improves circulation,
repeat the process five or six times, taking time out between each
heat-and-plunge to talk with friends, drink tea or have a bite to eat.
Most visitors stay for at least four or five hours, Nayflesh said. Some
stay all day.
almost like baseball in America,” Smith said of the social
aspects of the spa.
is $30 a day for adults and $15 for children 10 years and younger.
Massages, food and drinks are extra.
whole spa experience is relaxing, said Peter, a Ukrainian customer who
didn't want to give his last name.
will sleep much better,” he said. “You will sleep
eight hours, like a baby.”
Nayflesh, the best part of the spa is that all people are treated as
the same,” Nayflesh said. “There are no rich, no
poor, no government, no governed. Everyone wears the same
endures the same 186-degree temperatures.