The Turkish bath experience

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The Cagaloglu Hamami (Turkish bath) is the oldest bath in Istanbul — over 300 years old — and I arrived at about 3 o’clock one afternoon in July ’04 after a day of sightseeing and shopping in the Grand Bazaar.

First things first. The hamami is not a spa. It smells a little musty (think hundreds of years of humidity and heat). There are separate sections for men and women; the women’s entrance is around the corner, down an alley. Men still rule in Turkey.

There are five bath options, which are presented on a “menu” card in English, Turkish, German, French and Spanish, ranging from an entry-level, self-service bath (about $10) to the “Sultan’s Special” (about $30 or, with apple tea and tip, $40). Of course, I opted for the full treatment, which included exfoliation, massage, soapy full body bath and hair washing.

Once I selected the treatment, the receptionist, through a combination of broken English and gestures, handed me a thin, woven-cotton towel called a pestemal and motioned to the changing rooms.

The changing rooms overlooked the central lounge area, where padded benches allowed women to lounge either before, during or after the process. Occasionally, a door would bang open from the inner recesses of the building and a large sweaty woman wrapped in a towel would come out for a breath of fresh, cool air.

The lounge area was not particularly inviting, as it was lit by fluorescent light fixtures two stories overhead and looked about as plush as a Communist-era Soviet hotel. The changing rooms were not much better, lit by a single bare bulb and furnished with a rickety chair and a bed with a mattress and pillow.

I suppose, if you wanted to, you could take a nap before or after your bath, but I would choose my hotel room for a nap over these little changing rooms. The front wall of each changing room was covered with stained glass, with the top 18 inches open to the lounge area.

This is where you can leave your clothes — all of your clothes — as well as any other personal items like your purse and jewelry, and lock the room.

Everywhere, wood-and-leather sandals of various sizes littered the floor. I was motioned to take off my shoes and put on a pair of their sandals, which were stiff and unyielding. I thought I was going to break my neck shuffling and clomping around on the wet marble floors, but when in Rome. . .

I was motioned down the hall toward the main bath area, with just the little towel wrapped around my waist like a sarong skirt. I was very glad that I was able to work this “experience” into my schedule. It would have been an easy thing to pass up and that would have been a mistake.

I shuffled along on wet marble until we entered the main room — a large, marble domed area with chunks of star-shaped glass in the dome to allow natural light to penetrate. The sound of trickling and running water echoed through the room.

I was motioned to the side of the room, and a masseuse, using a combination of Turkish and gestures, told me to hang my towel on the hooks over the marble sink. She then motioned for me to sit, handed me a bowl and gestured for me to dip the bowl in water and pour it over me. Then she quickly left.

I was the only one in the bath at the time; I sat in wonderment as to what the next steps might be while taking in the incredible marble structure and the timelessness of the room. There was a large octagonal marble slab in the center of the room, and the diffused light from the dome transported me back to a time no longer. Just sitting there was an experience. If only the marble could talk. . .

Finally, after pouring water over and over and over my body, two other women entered and were seated on the other side of the room. They knew each other and I was a bit envious that they were able to chat and share this experience together. The steamy room was completely lined with heated gray marble, and I sat at the side of the room, dousing myself with cool water, waiting.

After a while the “station” across from me was soon busy with a woman pounding, washing and scrubbing the area. She was probably my age, about 20-plus pounds heavier than me, and her large breasts swung to the rhythm of her cleaning. She wore only a small cotton wrap around her waist. My first thought was that she was some kind of “janitor” and was simply sanitizing the area for the next client, but it turned out that she was my masseuse.

Slowly I acclimated to both the temperature and the vibe of the place, and then it was my turn. My masseuse motioned me to the large, raised, octagonal-shaped marble slab in the center of the room.

Lest one think that this is in any way sexual, let me assure that it is decidedly NOT. The masseuses are middle-aged Turkish women, some of whom could double as sumo wrestlers, and there is definitely a musty smell in the air. Periodically, a woman would come into the room and take orders for warm apple tea or bottled water.

The first part of the process was a hearty scrub with a loofah-type mitt. In between each procedure I would go back to “my sink” to rinse off and then return to the center slab.

Next, I was vigorously massaged with a citrus-scented lotion or oil. By the time that stage was nearly done, I was sliding around on the marble like a wet bar of soap. It was actually pretty funny, as my masseuse would simply push my body around if I wasn’t situated to her liking. It was like being on a Slip ’n Slide.

After another rinse and wait, I was washed with a big soapy sponge that reminded me of a whip — a whip of shredded loofah — and I became a big mass of suds, again sliding around on the warm slab as I was given another massage.

Soap was going everywhere and at times I felt like I was going to be smothered in the suds — needing to wipe my eyes and mouth while being pushed around on my stomach as she worked my back and legs. A couple of times I almost laughed at what I must have looked like: a limp noodle in a sauce of bubbles.

After a final rinse at the sink along the wall, my masseuse sat down at the station opposite and motioned for me to come over. She’d spread her legs and wanted me to sit, with my back to her, for a hair-and-face wash and finally a massage of my head, neck and shoulders. I felt relaxed and comforted as the masseuse sent me off with a motherly smile.

After a final rinse, I had to rejoin the world of the clothed. My fingers and toes had shriveled like raisins. My skin felt clean and tingly. My muscles were relaxed, and the last thing I wanted to do was leave the womb-like atmosphere of the bath and put on my clothes. Two hours had gone by in a blink of an eye.

After going back to the changing rooms and getting dressed, I went to pay for my “Sultan’s Special” and apple tea and to tip my masseuse. (Don’t worry, your masseuse will find you!)

Then I stepped back into the 21st century, with honking taxis, Internet cafés and cell phones. For a brief couple of hours, however, I’d been transported back to the days of sultans, palaces and harems.

A traditional Turkish bath is not for the squeamish. You need to be fairly comfortable with your body and with being surrounded by lots of other body types. The experience is unlike any other, and I wished I’d done a bath at the beginning of the trip — to literally and figuratively shed my Western skin — as well as at the end.

PEGGY LONG
Portland, OR

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The Cagaloglu Hamami (Turkish bath) is the oldest bath in Istanbul — over 300 years old — and I arrived at about 3 o’clock one afternoon in July ’04 after a day of sightseeing and shopping in the Grand Bazaar.

First things first. The hamami is not a spa. It smells a little musty (think hundreds of years of humidity and heat). There are separate sections for men and women; the women’s entrance is around the corner, down an alley. Men still rule in Turkey.

There are five bath options, which are presented on a “menu” card in English, Turkish, German, French and Spanish, ranging from an entry-level, self-service bath (about $10) to the “Sultan’s Special” (about $30 or, with apple tea and tip, $40). Of course, I opted for the full treatment, which included exfoliation, massage, soapy full body bath and hair washing.

Once I selected the treatment, the receptionist, through a combination of broken English and gestures, handed me a thin, woven-cotton towel called a pestemal and motioned to the changing rooms.

The changing rooms overlooked the central lounge area, where padded benches allowed women to lounge either before, during or after the process. Occasionally, a door would bang open from the inner recesses of the building and a large sweaty woman wrapped in a towel would come out for a breath of fresh, cool air.

The lounge area was not particularly inviting, as it was lit by fluorescent light fixtures two stories overhead and looked about as plush as a Communist-era Soviet hotel. The changing rooms were not much better, lit by a single bare bulb and furnished with a rickety chair and a bed with a mattress and pillow.

I suppose, if you wanted to, you could take a nap before or after your bath, but I would choose my hotel room for a nap over these little changing rooms. The front wall of each changing room was covered with stained glass, with the top 18 inches open to the lounge area.

This is where you can leave your clothes — all of your clothes — as well as any other personal items like your purse and jewelry, and lock the room.

Everywhere, wood-and-leather sandals of various sizes littered the floor. I was motioned to take off my shoes and put on a pair of their sandals, which were stiff and unyielding. I thought I was going to break my neck shuffling and clomping around on the wet marble floors, but when in Rome. . .

I was motioned down the hall toward the main bath area, with just the little towel wrapped around my waist like a sarong skirt. I was very glad that I was able to work this “experience” into my schedule. It would have been an easy thing to pass up and that would have been a mistake.

I shuffled along on wet marble until we entered the main room — a large, marble domed area with chunks of star-shaped glass in the dome to allow natural light to penetrate. The sound of trickling and running water echoed through the room.

I was motioned to the side of the room, and a masseuse, using a combination of Turkish and gestures, told me to hang my towel on the hooks over the marble sink. She then motioned for me to sit, handed me a bowl and gestured for me to dip the bowl in water and pour it over me. Then she quickly left.

I was the only one in the bath at the time; I sat in wonderment as to what the next steps might be while taking in the incredible marble structure and the timelessness of the room. There was a large octagonal marble slab in the center of the room, and the diffused light from the dome transported me back to a time no longer. Just sitting there was an experience. If only the marble could talk. . .

Finally, after pouring water over and over and over my body, two other women entered and were seated on the other side of the room. They knew each other and I was a bit envious that they were able to chat and share this experience together. The steamy room was completely lined with heated gray marble, and I sat at the side of the room, dousing myself with cool water, waiting.

After a while the “station” across from me was soon busy with a woman pounding, washing and scrubbing the area. She was probably my age, about 20-plus pounds heavier than me, and her large breasts swung to the rhythm of her cleaning. She wore only a small cotton wrap around her waist. My first thought was that she was some kind of “janitor” and was simply sanitizing the area for the next client, but it turned out that she was my masseuse.

Slowly I acclimated to both the temperature and the vibe of the place, and then it was my turn. My masseuse motioned me to the large, raised, octagonal-shaped marble slab in the center of the room.

Lest one think that this is in any way sexual, let me assure that it is decidedly NOT. The masseuses are middle-aged Turkish women, some of whom could double as sumo wrestlers, and there is definitely a musty smell in the air. Periodically, a woman would come into the room and take orders for warm apple tea or bottled water.

The first part of the process was a hearty scrub with a loofah-type mitt. In between each procedure I would go back to “my sink” to rinse off and then return to the center slab.

Next, I was vigorously massaged with a citrus-scented lotion or oil. By the time that stage was nearly done, I was sliding around on the marble like a wet bar of soap. It was actually pretty funny, as my masseuse would simply push my body around if I wasn’t situated to her liking. It was like being on a Slip ’n Slide.

After another rinse and wait, I was washed with a big soapy sponge that reminded me of a whip — a whip of shredded loofah — and I became a big mass of suds, again sliding around on the warm slab as I was given another massage.

Soap was going everywhere and at times I felt like I was going to be smothered in the suds — needing to wipe my eyes and mouth while being pushed around on my stomach as she worked my back and legs. A couple of times I almost laughed at what I must have looked like: a limp noodle in a sauce of bubbles.

After a final rinse at the sink along the wall, my masseuse sat down at the station opposite and motioned for me to come over. She’d spread her legs and wanted me to sit, with my back to her, for a hair-and-face wash and finally a massage of my head, neck and shoulders. I felt relaxed and comforted as the masseuse sent me off with a motherly smile.

After a final rinse, I had to rejoin the world of the clothed. My fingers and toes had shriveled like raisins. My skin felt clean and tingly. My muscles were relaxed, and the last thing I wanted to do was leave the womb-like atmosphere of the bath and put on my clothes. Two hours had gone by in a blink of an eye.

After going back to the changing rooms and getting dressed, I went to pay for my “Sultan’s Special” and apple tea and to tip my masseuse. (Don’t worry, your masseuse will find you!)

Then I stepped back into the 21st century, with honking taxis, Internet cafés and cell phones. For a brief couple of hours, however, I’d been transported back to the days of sultans, palaces and harems.

A traditional Turkish bath is not for the squeamish. You need to be fairly comfortable with your body and with being surrounded by lots of other body types. The experience is unlike any other, and I wished I’d done a bath at the beginning of the trip — to literally and figuratively shed my Western skin — as well as at the end.

PEGGY LONG
Portland, OR