Turkey gets under your skin
It seems many travellers either love or hate their hammam experience, but either way a tour of Turkey wouldn’t be complete without getting your kit off to try this local bathing tradition, as Margaret Morse explains…
“I asked Gaye about Turkish baths. She smiled and said that would be a great way to unwind from the air flight over. She phoned friends who knew where there was one open on a Sunday and made arrangements for us to go. I had been keen to go to one of these, but not game to go with a stranger, so I was very pleased she could take me.
We called into her apartment first to unpack. I think nearly everyone in Istanbul lives in apartments. Hers was two floors up with no lift. It is in a very nice suburb on the Asian side, called Fenerabahce.
One custom I did not know of, and it took me a few days to realise, is that of wearing ‘slippers’ or some simple slip-on shoes inside the houses, and these are never worn outside. Gaye lent me some sandals to put on inside the house, and I put my heavier shoes in my room with my luggage. When came time to depart for the Turkish bath, here was I still in my sandals. She asked if I was going to wear those out? I thought, “Why not? We would wear them to a pool. They are easy to slip on and off.” It was only much later that I realised that all shoe changing happens in the entry hallway. No outside shoes come in and the inside shoes stay in.
The Turkish bath (hammam) is an experience to be enjoyed. The first room was dimly lit and the attendants who spoke to us were old ladies, wearing nothing on their top halves, just wraps and towels on the lower part. Not really a pretty sight! After entering we are directed to undress in the cubicles and given wraps to wear. Then we progressed to the large room where the basins and the massage table are located. The walls and floor are marble, as is the massage table. The ceiling is a strange construction made of something like besser block material, but in a honeycomb style, letting in the light.
We spent quite a while getting ourselves wet, which you do with a shallow plastic bowl filled from your own individual basin. You choose the temperature. The idea is to sit around, chat quietly, relax entirely, staying wet and cool. Gaye explained that there is a time for drinking water with gas and a time for drinking water without gas. We commenced with a bottle of water without gas while we were relaxing.
On a day of 35 degree temperature outside this was nice. There was a mild heat in the room but by staying soaking wet, you were cool. There was an anteroom off to the side that was heated like a sauna, but I did not want to get that hot.
I watched a lady get a massage on the table. When she was rubbed strongly, I saw so much black stuff coming off her skin. I thought to myself how dirty she must have been. Little did I know the same would come off me!
When we were ready for our massages, Gaye arranged for the lady to come in and start with me. She relayed the instructions: “Tell the lady to sit facing me,” or “Tell the lady to lie down on her stomach.” I was glad I had Gaye to translate for me, even though our common language was French.
The attendant commenced with an all over massage. It really helped with the relaxation. She used massage oil and I felt wonderful. Then she started on the exfoliation with mitts on her hands. I saw the black stuff coming off me too and realised just how much dead skin we all carry. Then she washed this off with nice warm water. More massage with a nice soft oil, and then a final wash off with a bucket of COLD water. I nearly screamed.
Obviously at this stage when your body is all tingly and your muscles are really awake, this is the time to give it all a big shock. After that I was able to go back over the side and wash myself with my own soaps and my hair with shampoo.
Once finished, it is still time to lie around in the cubicles drinking water ‘with gas’ to fully refresh. Finally you dress, pay up for this wonderful experience, that I calculated was about $12 per person, and leave feeling like a million dollars!”
Ready to discover more about Turkey? We have a fantastic selection of trips to choose from, just like Turkey Express, one of Intrepid’s most popular small group adventures!
Photo: tea seller in Turkey by Cameron Gaze