The 10 Days of the Banya Tour
The dust has settled, the sleep debt is paid back with interest, and the word is out: The banya tour was a success. The first cohort of Archimedes Tours graduates is spreading the message of communal bathing and travel, comparing their notes, and planning new trips. Everyone else has questions.
As The Banya Journal editor and a trip participant, I’m the one to produce the written account of the tour, which is a complex task if you want to do it right. Rehashing the itinerary will not capture the essence of the experience, and no one is interested in the trite mishmash of superlatives.
I thought about it, and it will be a rhapsody — the Rhapsody of Steam. Long before the term “rhapsody” was brought into pop culture by Queen, it was understood as a musical genre that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasting themes and topics. Themes in a rhapsody change often and freely, conversing, colliding, creating a tapestry of impressions.
This is how the tour was: a single itinerary scattered into countless moments seasoned with improvisation and luck.
The Baltic Sea was always a puzzle. It’s too cold to swim in most of the time unless you’re one of those winter swimmers who amount to 20% of the Estonian population (if we are to trust the ad banner in Tallinn airport). The beach will still test your bathing resolve for the short summer period when the water is warm enough – it will probably be around a ten-minute walk until you are knee-deep.
And yet there is something about it that is easy to fall in love with. It doesn’t entice you the way the azure waters of the Caribbean might or overwhelm you with the power of the Pacific Ocean surf. It just exists, stretching in its northern glory to the horizon and beyond, foreign and uncaring, washing away your thoughts until all that remains is clarity and internal stillness.
I was standing on the beach of Pärnu, our last destination, lost in the minimalist Baltic landscape. The banya tour – the first banya tour in the world – was coming to a close. The volume of impressions determines the human perception of time, and it felt like we were on the road for a month. From the monumental cathedral in Cologne to the lush Estonian Forrest, from the wild party streets of Luxembourg to the breathtaking Rhine and German “banya palaces,” our tour rolled from one stop to another, creating moments and memories.
The chatter of my brain subsided, quieted by the sounds of the waves, and a thought crystallized: banya tour is now a reality. It exists as a state of mind of those who took part, as an experience, as a topic of conversation, and as plans for the future. It’s real and alive; it will grow, no doubt, as all living things do. But its roots will always be in these last ten days.
Day 1. Frankfurt
Having been to Frankfurt before during the brief layover, I was not excited to return. Yes, it makes great practical sense as a starting point – it is a massive transportation hub and the best place for people to fly in and out. Yet, the city itself did not feel engaging. All I got to see last time were some parts of the Bankenviertel, a skyscraper-heavy business district also known as Bankfurt or Mainhatten due to the alarmingly high concentration of global financial giants. I didn’t blame Frankfurters for that. After the destruction of World War II, it was impossible to expect anything else. The city remade itself into the financial hub; the spirit of global commerce expelled the ghost of history. Or so I thought.
After having a glass of champagne at the hotel and just enough free time to adjust to seeing and hearing (but not understanding) in German, we embarked on our first official function as a group: the opening dinner of the tour. The city was nothing like I remembered. Instead of corporate boredom, I saw life. Streets were filled with people. Merchants, shoppers, party-goers, passersby. Crowds of people rush through the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof gates, one of the biggest railroad stations in Europe. We walked passed boulevards shaped by outdoor cafes – from Turkish shawarma places to Indian curry houses and burger joints – filled with patrons enjoying the German sun and, often, a cigarette. It felt lively, a European version of Hong Kong.
After a short walk down the promenade, we crossed the bridge to the south side of the Main River. There, we were met with silence that is rare for the major city.
Perfectly manicured patios, beautiful art deco townhouses, blooming flowers, and sprawling trees, all the way until we reached Schweizer Straße, a cozy boulevard with two of the most traditional apfelwein restaurants in the city. One of them, Apfelwein Wagner, was our destination.
Apfelwein, a dry cider made out of tart apples of “Bohnapfel” or “Speierling” varieties, is a Frankfurt specialty. The tavern producing and selling apple cider was founded at the end of the 19th century. The Wagner family purchased it in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, and continues to run it until now.
We were greeted by the waiter, a man in his forties sporting a white shirt and a white waiter jacket, who led us to our table in a neat outdoor patio. Originally from Poland, he became the star of the night thanks to his dry wit and a very German ability to be unapologetic about the facts. “You say you want a beer? There’s no beer; we serve apfelwein; beer is served elsewhere.” “You want to drink apfelwein? You must mix it with sparkling water (the detail I would love to know on my previous visit to Frankfurt, it would spare me a bit of disappointment).” “It’s an asparagus season, so you must order asparagus – one order per each part of the table.” He effortlessly created a playful drama over ordering Apple Strudel by rejecting the order, then bringing the dessert. I was informed that the drama enhanced the taste.
Our first introduction to German gastronomy was just as straightforward and effective: most menu options consisted of some version of meat (pork knuckle, ribs, schnitzel, sausages), sauerkraut, and potatoes, all beautifully cooked.
During the dinner, our fearless leader, the founder of Archimedes Banya, and the mind behind the tour, Dr. Mikhail Brodsky, proposed a toast. I might have phrased things a bit differently (FYI, I’m the Alex mentioned in the speech:), but the general sentiment was undeniable: We were in it, the banya tour has begun.
After a brief night walk across the Main via the emptied financial district towards the gargantuan Hauptbahnhof, the group ended up in the Irish pub conveniently located next to the hotel, the first in a series of serendipitous occurrences, which inevitably brought us to Irish pubs (or Irish pubs to us?) in almost all the places we visited. As I was walking, it occurred to me that I was reading Frankfurt all wrong. It is a place of reinvention, and as such, it is “more alive” than many other European towns. It is not a museum but a living organism, a sum of all the people who find themselves here.
For about 24 hours, our group of fifteen banya-loving travelers participated in the continuous evolution of the city, and it, in return, brought us together.