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Istanbul's Bath Houses

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Posted 04 June 2008 - 06:40

Istanbul's Bath Houses


by: Rose Mulready, November 2007

Want to steam away the travel grime - but confused by the rituals? Here's a simple guide to keeping your cool.

'Welcome to Paradise.'

It's the opening gambit of every second tout in Sultanahmet. For the first-time visitor to Istanbul's old quarter - knocked dizzy by its hazy views of domes and minarets, its cobbled lanes plunging to the sea, its bazaars and teahouses and blue-dusk calls to prayer - the claim doesn't seem so outlandish. But you haven't really touched heaven here until you've emerged, rosy and languorous, from the steamy depths of the hamam.

For the modern-day traveller, it's the perfect place to shuck the grime and aches of the road and taste a particularly Turkish brand of luxury.

Before the advent of private bathrooms, the hamam served as wash house, meeting place and ceremonial site rolled into one. For the modern-day traveller, it's the perfect place to shuck the grime and aches of the road and taste a particularly Turkish brand of luxury. And conveniently, the oldest and most beautiful of Istanbul's hamams are spang in the middle of Sultanahmet, home base for most visitors.

The basic hamam routine goes something like this. You'll enter a reception area, where you'll decide on the level of treatment you want (DIY wash? Wash with attendant? Oil massage with that?) and pay accordingly. You'll then be led into a change area (usually your own lockable room) where you'll undress and leave your things.

'Undress' means pretty much what you want it to mean. The attendants will give you a cloth (resembling, in most establishments, an over-sized red gingham tea towel). You'll keep this on to travel from the change rooms to the hamam. Most hamams have separate steam rooms for men and women (in smaller towns, there will often be separate times or even days for women's bathing). In this situation, men are expected to maintain a certain loin-clothy level of coverage, but women can throw caution, as it were, to the winds. Most Turkish women subtly drape themselves with their cloth when they're not actually bathing, but if you prefer to bask nude no-one will bat much of an eyelid. If you're feeling shy, part or all of a swimsuit is acceptable; if you find yourself in the kind of hamam that has mixed-sex steam rooms and male attendants, it's usual to keep on at least the bottom half of a swimsuit.

You'll be given some shoes by your attendant - either traditional wooden clogs or fluorescent flip-flops. Stick with 'em. As a surface for pratfalls, only banana skins beat out wet marble.

It's not really the full hamam experience unless your attendant is a hulking Turk with pendulous breasts - regardless of sex.

Once you've been shepherded into the hamam you'll be left to lounge on the heated marble. In most cases, there'll be a göbektaşı (belly stone), a round central platform where you can loll around like a sunning python. If not, take a seat and lean against the walls. The idea is to sweat, loosening dirt and toxins in preparation for your wash. If you're going self-service, follow this up with a loofah-and-soap rub-down and douse yourself with water from the marble basins. If you've forked out for an attendant, they'll catch up with you after you've had a good, 15-minute sweat. At this point, the 'Oh! Have I suddenly been transported to an Ottoman palace circa 1837?' bliss begins. You'll be laid down on the edge of the göbektaşı and sluiced with tepid water, then your attendant will take you in hand. (And it's not really the full hamam experience unless your attendant is a hulking Turk with pendulous breasts - regardless of sex).

First up is a dry massage with a kese (rough mitt). Depending on your attendant, this experience can be delicious (a little like being washed by a giant cat) or tumultuous (picture a tornado made of sandpaper). If you get to feeling like a flayed deer, use the international language of charade to bring it down a notch or two.

Next will be the soap. The attendant will work up an almighty lather with an enormous sponge and squeeze it all over you: it's a bit like taking a bubble bath without the bath. The foam (attar of roses? Asses' milk? Sorry, it's most likely good ole Head 'n' Shoulders) will be worked into every inch of you. Next, more sluicing, followed by a shampoo, and voila, you're clean as a whistle. The shiny kind.

If you've ordered an oil massage, you'll be ushered into another room for it. Unless you're particularly flush, it's probably best to skip this bit: the massages are brief and often lack finesse, and the oils are hardly deluxe.

After the massage, either soap or oil, you're on your own. And here's the real secret of heaven: don't rush it. Many tourists splash-and-dash their way through the hamam experience, leaving immediately after their treatment. Don't be one of them. Hang around. Overheat, cool down with a dousing, and repeat to fade. Chat idly with your companions. Gaze lazily at the star-shaped beams of light that pierce the steamy dome. Let your muscles turn to toffee and your mind go pleasantly elastic. Let time slip its cogs. After all, there are no clocks in paradise.

Three of the Best
http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/ (Yerebatan Caddesi 34, Cağaloğlu; tel: 212 522 2424; men 8am-10pm, women 8am-8pm; YTL20-70): By far the most spectacular of Istanbul's hamams; its steam rooms are lavishly arched and domed, and decorated with tulip tiles.

http://www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr/ (Vezir Hanı Caddesi 8, Çemberlitaş; tel: 212 522 7974; 6am-midnight; YTL20-60): Built by the famous architect Sinan in 1584, this is a classic hamam experience. There is a clock in the steam rooms; ignore it and settle in for a good bask under the star-punctured dome.

http://www.sultanahmethamami.com/ (Doktor Emin Paşa Sok 10 {off Divanyolu Caddesi}, Sultanahmet; tel: 212 513 7204; 8am-midnight; YTL20-60): Granted, there is no belly stone and the 17th-century steam rooms smell faintly of mould, but come here for above-average massage and service.

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