Russian & Turkish Baths Shuttle on Saturdays

Press and Media

Steam rooms bring Russian immigrants together

Bryon MacWilliams fans steam bathers at Southampton Spa in Southampton, Bucks County.

Bryon MacWilliams fans steam bathers at Southampton Spa in Southampton, Bucks County. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

Wearing felt hats to protect their scalps against being scorched, bathers head into the steam bath at Southampton Spa. It's the intense heat that gives these bathhouses their appeal.

GALLERY: Wearing felt hats to protect their scalps against being…

By Michael Matza, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: November 02, 2014

One in an occasional series on America's changing face.

Grigory Konkin hurls a pail's worth of water into the huge, hellishly hot brick oven. Steam too hot to fog diffuses in the room as men and women in bathing suits file in.

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, soaked branches used to whip skin to a rosy hue, increasing the sensation of heat.

Konkin's friend Bryon MacWilliams  uses a scented wand shaped like a pool skimmer to sweep the hottest air near the ceiling onto glistening devotees. "Thank you," several gasp. " Spasibo."

Snapshots from 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.

"With all the immigration we've got people from all the former Soviet Republics, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, all over," said Alex Lebedinsky, 66, who staffs the desk where towels and robes are distributed and signs are in English and the curly Cyrillic of written Russian.

"They come to socialize, eat traditional foods, and speak their own language," said Lebedinsky, who emigrated from Moldova 37 years ago and like many of these immigrants lives in Northeast Philadelphia.

Just like back home

The spa bills itself as greater Philadelphia's only authentic Russian bathhouse, complete with a restaurant serving smoked fish, an ice-cold plunge pool, and a patio 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 outdoors.

The U.S. Census, in its most recent data, estimates that 25,000 people in Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania and Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties in South Jersey speak Russian at home.

Alex Shraybman, president of New World Association, a two-decades-old immigrant-support center on Bustleton Avenue, thinks the number of Russian and former Soviet Republic immigrants in the region could be much higher than the Census estimate when you count at least 10,000 Ukrainians and others who arrived in and around Philadelphia after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

In Somerton, Bustleton, and Rhawnhurst and parts of Bucks County, "Ukrainian and Russian immigrants - stemming initially from refugee resettlement in that area in the 1990s - dominate the mix of foreign born," notes a 2008 Brookings Institution report on change in the region.

Svetlana Krakopolskaya, 46, an analyst at TD Bank who came to Philadelphia from St. Petersburg in 2002, said she visits the Southampton banya about once every six weeks.

She was there on the recent night when MacWilliams, 48, and Konkin, 54, who was visiting from Moscow, created a series of signature steams infused with garlic, mint, and 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. Known to 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 group steam-cum-book launch.

The event 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.

Shraybman said he is not a big fan of big steam. But when he visited the spa with a nephew three years ago, it rekindled memories of childhood, when his father took him to banya once a week "for sanitary purposes" because they didn't have bathing facilities at home in Ukraine.

Shared passion

Irina Brown, an internist now living in Silver Spring, Md., was raised in Kazakhstan. She and her husband, Frank Brown, befriended MacWilliams, who grew up in Wenonah, Gloucester County, and spent 12 years in Moscow as a journalist for American and British media, when the three lived in Russia and discovered their shared passion for steam. The Browns, along with their son Savva, 11, attended the book party.

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.

"As an American," said Frank Brown, "all I could see was this homoerotic environment - the steam, the whipping. It took me a long time to get over it."

But eventually, he said, he became such a fan "that I started going to church on Wednesday, so I could go to banya on Sunday."

Now that's banya as religion.

mmatza@phillynews.com215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

German, Russian, and Eastern European Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia

By Foobooz  |  October 7, 2014 at 8:40 am

Pierogi from Royal Cracovia | Photo by Neal Santos

Pierogi from Royal Cracovia | Photo by Neal Santos

Italian, British, French? 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, Garces and Starr, here are some good places to start.

Southampton Spa Russian and Turkish Baths (SOUTHAMPTON) 

Yes, we are telling you to eat dinner at a bathhouse. There’s subtle borscht, delicate blintzes with fat red caviar, and sweet-’n’-yeasty kvass on tap, served along with other salty snacks in this Russian hangout featuring a steam room, two Jacuzzis, three styles of sauna, an icy plunge pool, and Swiss showers that spray you from a dozen angles. 141 Second Street Pike, 215-942-4646.


Philadelphia Magazine Best of Philly - 2011 Best Spa

Philadelphia Magazine Voted Best Bath Spa of 2011

Southampton Spa

If the Turkish bath, Russian bath, sauna, cold plunge pool, heated lap pool, barraging Swiss shower, sunbathing courtyard and juice bar can’t cure what ails you, we know a few shrinks you can call.

141 Second Street Pike, Southampton, PA | 215-942-4646


"Don 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)

Many people seek out the soothing offerings of a luxury day spa to find relaxation and relief from the stresses and tensions of the day.

But 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.

The 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.

Steven Nayflesh/Southampton Spa: "None of spas in Philadelphia area don't have anything like that so we decided to be the first one."

Where pools of ice water bring invigorating relief from a session in a hot rock heated sauna that approaches souffle temperatures.

"Russian 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."

That 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.

"It's 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."

The result of a proven centuries old health regimen of extreme heat followed by extreme cold whose benefits continue to be heard across the world.


Basking in the banya

By Aaron Kuriloff
For The Inquirer

The thermometer on the sauna wall read 250 degrees, although the little needle seemed broken, pinned at the top. But the air certainly felt that hot.

Not 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.

I 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 shtetl.

I 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.

So I 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.

I'd been in for three minutes.

I was still thinking about my relatives, but not in a good way. "Uncle," I said.

From the exterior, Southampton Spa appears as "Russian" as any office supply or shipping warehouse lining the byways between Street Road and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A revamped ice-skating rink, it looks nothing like one of the $300-per-night "water spas" serving skiers in Sun Valley or Vail either.

But 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.

Their 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).

All 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.

My 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.

An 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Gabe 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.

Unlike 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.

Attendants 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.

Touch the ladle? We could barely stand up as we stumbled back into the hallway, visibly steaming and gasping, fishlike, for cool air.

Before 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.

Gabe 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.

"Blurg," he said, as I convulsed with laughter.

To 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.

It was Gabe's turn to laugh as I heaved myself out and toweled frantically. Where water touched me, I turned bright pink.

We recuperated poolside. Gabe ordered tea, and a server brought lemon, honey and that other Russian sweetening favorite: jam.

Tea 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.

About 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... ."

Despite 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 what's up."

Nyflash also pointed us toward the Turkish sauna, which has spigots and a shower head.

"When you feel you can't take it anymore, you put some water on yourself," he said.

By splashing cool water on our heads and wrists, we lasted a more respectable eight minutes in the 235 degrees.

We also 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 joint pain.

A man passed by, offering us a platza, a vigorous type of rubdown with the branches delivered right there in the sauna.

The 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."

Newbies 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."

I bet. 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.

By the 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 trepidation.

This 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.

After a 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.

I 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.

About 6:30 p.m., real-world deadlines started to cramp our relaxed attitude. We weren't ready to leave.

"We 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.

And that's without advertising, Nyflash added. "People who've never been before? They try it once and they want to come back."

Not that there aren't side effects.

"You smell like bacon," Gabe's girlfriend, Val Klein, reported when we got back to his house on Wharton Street. "I mean, hickory smoked."

I pondered the irony. Who would have thought getting in touch with our roots would make us un-kosher?

Cedar 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

Steam Room Temperatures Hover Around 164 Degrees

POSTED: 12:15 pm EDT May 2, 2006
UPDATED: 12:46 pm EDT May 2, 2006


NBC 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.

Nayflesh 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 out.


"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




Bucks County spa turns up the heat

The Intelligencer

Upper Southampton - The Southampton Spa is hot.

No, not 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.

If you 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.

The 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.

During the week, most customers are men, but plenty of women and children visit on weekends, Nayflesh said.

The spa 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.

But the 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.

Local Russians were ecstatic when the spa opened, Nayflesh said. Many had been traveling to New York regularly to enjoy the familiar bath experience.

“It's 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.' ”

Americans, on the other hand, might need a couple of visits to warm up to the baths.

“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.

Here's how a typical visit to the spa works:

Customers change from street clothes into bathing suits, white robes and flip-flops.

They 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, Nayflesh said.

Visitors 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.

“It's almost like baseball in America,” Smith said of the social aspects of the spa.

Admission is $30 a day for adults and $15 for children 10 years and younger. Massages, food and drinks are extra.

The whole spa experience is relaxing, said Peter, a Ukrainian customer who didn't want to give his last name.

“You will sleep much better,” he said. “You will sleep eight hours, like a baby.”

To Nayflesh, the best part of the spa is that all people are treated as equals.

“Everybody's the same,” Nayflesh said. “There are no rich, no poor, no government, no governed. Everyone wears the same clothes.”

And endures the same 186-degree temperatures.

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141 Second Street Pike, Southampton, PA 18966 Phone: (215) 942-4646

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