This post is my account of a Turkish hammam in Istanbul – so you know what to expect…
When in Turkey it would be wrong to leave without trying the ancient cleansing ritual of a hammam, or Turkish bath. They are dotted all over the city. Some of them are in hotels and really a Turkish version of a modern day spa. But I opted for the real deal.
Oh. My. Goodness!
As luck would have it, the second most talked about hamam in Istanbul is only a couple of blocks from my hotel, the Tom Tom Suites. The best one (according to reviews) is down between Ayasofia (Hagia Sophia) and the Blue Mosque and rather pricey (or so I was told).
So I decided to pop my head into Galatasaray Bath (it looks nothing like their website!) near Taksim Square and, for the sake of a good story, book myself in. Cousin Kate preferred to go shopping along the main street.
Galatasaray Bath was built in 1715 as a men-only bath. The women’s section wasn’t added until 1965. This bath used to be the hipster hangout for moneyed male revelers who needed a place to relax after a big night on the town. Today it’s still a local bath, but the folk I saw were less revellers and more older men.
But let’s cut to the chase.
I’ve never had a Turkish bath before and had no idea what to expect except that it could be painful and it was likely I had to get naked. I paid 105TL (about NZ$70) for a full service. I know, my mind boggled too. You can expect to drop a lot more than that down by the Blue Mosque.
I was led around the outside of the building to the women’s entrance by a short man of about 60, and this wouldn’t be the first Turk to ask if I was married. I wiggled my left hand affirmatively into his face. And it wouldn’t be the last time I did that.
He rang a doorbell and sent me up the stairs where a Turkish woman of about the same age showed me in. We couldn’t communicate with words so I was pointed in the direction of the row of changing rooms – with glass walls, the lower half coloured for modesty. A towel and a pair of wooden jandals were provided and in I went. “All off,” is quite possibly the only English she knows.
Modesty is something you will leave in the changing room. By the time I returned an hour later I had lost mine.
I hobbled out the door in my wooden footwear, through the cooling room with low basins (like this pic) into the grand, steamy hammam with a massive dome in its ceiling and a chandalier that could take candles but doesn’t.
The woman guiding me removed the thin yet tiny towel that I had managed to securely tuck around me and lock under my armpits and hello, I’m naked except for the key I am told to hold on to for my locker!
Then to my horror, I see two other women in the room, one in a bikini and an older one in big girl’s undies with boobs hanging to her waist. I feel underdressed.
The Turkish mama who showed me in gesticulates that I am to climb onto the big square marble stage under the chandalier and then I notice a third woman, naked as a jay bird and skinny as a stick, all bony hips and no boobs lying on the same plinth I was climbing onto.
The marble hexagonal platform is warm and everything is steamy wet as we lie there and wait. Sixteen marble basins, or kurna, line the walls and I take up my prone position gazing at the ceiling beside my naked friend. My boobs disappear under my armpits. I get dripped on from the chandalier in the steamy room. I have no idea what is coming next.
The semi clad ones are mother and daughter, I decide, and with one eye open I see them unable to lie down and relax. They want action and eventually, after about ten minutes of them not stopping talking in the echoing room they go to the door and organise some attention – for us all it turns out.
In walk the keseci, our old mama masseurs, wearing their mismatched bras and knickers, muffin tops created from once pregnant bellies.
The naked skinny one beside me gets up and leaves. She doesn’t return. Meanwhile the process begins on the others while I watch and learn.
Then it’s my turn.
My masseur is wearing a boob tube tied in the back. It has slipped down and one breast has fallen out. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. I am motioned to lie on my tummy and she uses a cotton mitt to rub me down with some gritty soap inside it. This is the painful part in men’s hammams, but not here at all. She scrubs my arms, legs and back then signals for me to roll over for her to do my front. Yep my whole front.
She then gets me to sit up so she can do my sides just as seven women enter the room leaving the outer door open too in their trail. I might as well be naked in the town square. They eventually all file in and sit down around the wall basins to watch and learn. It’s awkward but as I now know, is to be expected in a popular hammam like this one. I pretend I have no modesty and that it doesn’t bother me.
Then I’m led to the basins to slough warm water from my pewter cleansing bowl all over myself, then back to the slab, this time for the bubble wash and massage.
In a wet cloth they place their soap then holding the opening they toss it up, twist it and as it puffs in to a balloon they squeeze the soap over your body. I didn’t know this until later when I was watching the seven girls, but the hamamee disappears under a mountain of froth. She works the bubbles in, massaging a little (it’s nothing like the massage I was expecting, more just running her hands over my body to wash me). I roll over and nearly slide straight onto the floor. She washes my front. Yes.
Then I am led back to the basins again where after rinsing off she takes up her position on a plastic kiddie stool behind me and out comes a bottle of Turkish Pantene. I kid you not. My key is inadvertently left on the table but I’m not returning there so one of the new girls in the queue who’s about to start the process brings it to me just as I am engulfed in water and shampoo and I offer a gurgling thanks.
Then that’s it. I am left to rinse off as long as I wish (I didn’t know if anything more was to happen actually). Beverages were meant to be included, but weren’t and I did feel that I was in a busy production line with the women needing to process the next group.
I toddle to the door in the crazy clogs and try and find a towel so any modesty I might still have can be covered, and exit into reception to get dressed behind the clear glass.
Definitely a fun experience, and yes I’d do it again.
Four Tips for using a hamam:
- Bring your hair conditioner – they don’t use such luxury products – and do it yourself at the basin when your treatment is over.
- Keeping your knickers on is perfectly acceptable, so feel free to do so. If you wear a bikini top you’ll need to take it off for the treatment.
- Pay for the full service so you get the massage (although I’m not sure if that’s what I actually got). They do offer an oil massage in some places too.
- Go to an authentic hamam over a hotel one if you want a real local experience.