Some people might be quite shocked when they hear about the idea of voluntarily exposing the body to about 80 C hot air and right after that cooling down the organism by diving into a pool with ice-cold water. The change between cycles of hot and cold is known to have a relaxing and healthy effect on body and soul, as the most trustful institution on this issue – the Finish Sauna Society – informs us.
The refreshing experience of a visit to the sauna is also known to many Romanians in the capital Bucharest, where people go to take a bath at Baia Publica Grivita.
“I come here every day, as I don’t have good conditions at home – actually I do not have a home. I stay with my sister and she has no bathroom” a pensioner reveals. As it is a state-owned bath, prices are cheap. For 6 lei (less than 2 euro) you can stay for unlimited time. Pensioners and students get discount, and people receiving social benefit can even enter for free.
Sick men in need of therapy, poor people in need of a shower, traders from the nearby market place – Baia Grivita receives them all. Being a single-sex bath, there are days for men and woman separately. For more intimacy and some extra money you may book one of the few private cabins to do your sauna. Yet, la commun - the public part – is for sure the more impressive one and that’s where we headed to.
At the cloakroom you leave all your clothes behind and instead receive a pair of wooden slippers and a small sheet to sit on or wrap around if you like. Besides this you enter nude.
Sweating and Socialising
“Nowhere I feel better than here. The steam at the sauna is very natural, there is a lot of space to walk around and unlimited time to stay” Costel, one of the regular visitors, can tell. Baia Grivita actually consists of two saunas – one dry Finish-style sauna and one Turkish steam sauna. Then there is a small indoor pool with cold water, lots of communal showers and a massage room where men rest on some kind of stone benches and robust massage servants knead their bodies.
All over the place, everything is wet, warm and slippery. The steam from the Turkish sauna fills all the rooms with mist. Water is everywhere: floors, walls and ceilings are wet from condensation. The pipes of the heating system and everything else made of iron becomes rusty under these circumstances. Better don’t ask about hygiene.
Tuesday and Thursday woman only. Photo by Roxana Lupu, evz.ro
People come for sweating and socialising. Rather older generations, men with cheap tattoos all over their skin, very old men with wrinkly skin and barely able to walk and quite a few very corpulent Gypsies.
I heard some rumours, that the social status among gypsies is partly reflected by the size of ones belly. According to this measure, the fat gypsy guys at Baia Grivita must have a very high reputation in their communities.
The bath is located in a not so favoured area of Bucharest, close to the city’s renowned main train station Gara de Nord and just around the corner from Piata Matache – a market place where all kinds of goods and services can be bought if you ask the right person.
The transpiring crowd in the bath seems to mirror the social strata of this area – as far as you can tell when everybody around is naked. Yet, sitting among all those big bellies, we do not really know if those people with strange tattoos are former detainees, if the gypsy guys talking about the qualities of woman do love them or trade them and if some of the old men at the next shower spend their last nights on the streets rather then in an apartment.
Visitors not used to meet so many nude and extraordinary looking people might be shocked by this very crowd. Besides, there is a quite loud talking and yelling in the bath, while your vision is blurred because of all the steam and humidity. We do not know, but what we see suggest a lot of things.
Among the younger generations in Bucharest, the public bath at Grivita is quite unknown. Although next door there is a fancy pub frequented by lots of students, only few guests know about the bath in the very neighbourhood. And those who have heard about it, refer to rumours about a meeting place for homosexuals.
Indeed, a google search on Baia Grivita first leads to a Romanian newspaper article entitled “Gay’s Paradise”. While a portray of Baia Grivita as a major domain for gays is misleading, something might be true about it. When visiting the bath for the first time, a companion repeatedly received – to his consternation – unambiguous hints and signals by older males.
The last bath
Baia Grivita, built in 1897, is the last one of its kind in town today. Back in the eighties, quite a few public bathes existed in Bucharest. Yet, after the fall of communism, many of them got closed and were destroyed or used for other purposes consequently. Also the old bath at Grivita had been in a very bad shape at the end of the nineties, when the town hall finally decided to renovate the complex.
Reopened in 2002, a few years later the place looks quite run down again. Recently the town hall stopped to invest further money, since a restitution claim for the real estate was filed. Now the bath is again in danger to be closed.
The public bath receives visitors daily except on Sundays from 10 am to 6 pm. Tuesday and Thursday are reserved for woman, the other days the bath is open for males.
Str. Sfintii Voievozi 1, Bucharest