By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In New York, I used to indulge in this peculiar pleasure at the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village. The baths occupied three floors of an old brownstone, and they were small and crowded and, for the most part, coed. (For a brief period they were so intoxicatingly coed that men and women shared the same changing room, not to mention relaxation beds. A dividing wall has since been inserted.) There were four different kinds of sauna — Swedish, Turkish, Russian, along with a small steam room of no known nationality — and a small, ice-cold pool braved only by the hardiest regulars. Though relaxation was the stated purpose, the place felt hectic in the traditional New York fashion. There was a continuous stream of arrivals and departures, and an enormous custom in massage (the smell of Johnson’s Baby Oil permeated the second floor, along with some suspiciously pleasurable groans). Downstairs, in the saunas, there was a line for the showers, and more lines of people sitting, post-sauna, on benches that faced each other across a narrow passageway, next to the ice-cold pool. All in all, it was a bit like a subway car invaded by clouds of steam.
You won’t feel as if you’re on a subway at City Spa, which is much more relaxed and spacious and has a slightly decadent, Old World feel. As it says on the flier, it’s a place “where men and women go to escape from the pressures and burdens of everyday life without actually leaving the city.” (Women, it should be pointed out, can escape only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.) There are three saunas, of which the best are the Russian Rock Room, a multitiered chamber heated by stones in two large dome-shaped ovens, and the Eucalyptus Steam Room. The latter is the best for escapist purposes, for the moment you enter it you vanish — like Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca— in a thick swirl of fog. There are two levels, the upper one being so hot that those who choose it either lie down flat, inches below the hottest layer of steam, or sit hunched over with towels and gowns wrapped around their heads for protection.
If you couldn’t leave after a few minutes, it would be a miniature hell, complete with fiery bodies and guilt-racked souls sighing and groaning in dimly lit corners. (And there is something curiously penitential about the posture the body instinctively adopts in extreme heat: hunched over, face buried in hands, life force slowly dribbling away in a million beads of sweat.) But hell doesn’t come equipped with a swimming pool, and City Spa does. It’s not ice-cold (there’s a “Swedish cold plunge” for that), but it’s certainly chilly, and cools you off pronto. Every so often you will see someone who has just been taken to the limits of his endurance by a burly masseur wielding a bushel of leafy eucalyptus branches — the plaitzamassage — run shrieking from the Russian Rock Room straight into the swimming pool, in which he then splashes around, howling in relief like a drunk seal.
What kind of experience you have at City Spa depends, to some extent, on when you go. On Thursday nights, a.k.a. “Russian night,” BMWs and SUVs jam the parking lot and the atmosphere is positively boisterous with Eastern European bonhomie. Everyone’s talking, but chances are you won’t understand a word, and the good vibes don’t always extend to those born west of Ukraine. Personally, I prefer the place on just about any evening after 8, when tranquillity reigns. Just a few lost souls flitting in and out of the mist, ready to do penance.