She leads me by my hand up the stairs, grabbing a towel on the way and muttering something in Turkish to another woman in the room. In a small glass cubicle, handing me the towel, she says in her first English words to me, ‘take off everything and wear this.’ I look at her a little puzzled as she shuts the transparent door and waits outside. I’m at a Hamam aka the much famed Turkish Bath, and no amount of googling could make this situation feel less awkward. For the uninitiated, a Hamam is a sort of traditional group spa from the Ottoman era, complete with steam bath & massage, typically with separate chambers for men & women.
I contemplate for a few seconds, and recalling the advise I’ve read online, I decide to go topless below the towel but keep my underpants on. I step out the cubicle and follow my lady through passages with gradually increasing levels of steam, and enter a massive area with high marble ceilings where four women are chatting in Turkish, naked except underwears, some being lathered & massaged, others pouring water over themselves. I try not to think of the scene as the porn movie of every guy’s fantasy. I try not to ogle at all the display of flesh. My lady asks to take my towel and points me to the sauna, where I seat my self conscious self and wonder how a not so liberal Ottoman society must have adopted bathing as a social ritual! I look up at the dome shaped ceilings that date back over 500 years, and think about all the gossip these walls have been privy to over time. Hamams started as a way for men to cool off after work, and gradually spilt over as a tradition to their women; unfortunately the tradition has faded away in recent years in Turkey, with modern forms of socializing involving less flesh and more food taking centre stage.
Dripping with the heat of the sauna, I step out to find my lady now clad in a bikini, leading me to the bathing stall. I duck my head as she pours warm water over my almost naked self from a marble sink. She asks me where I’m from, and gives me a broad smile chanting Hindistan.
Im led to a big marble slab, and asked to lay on my back on a rag. What follows is a good one hour of pampering; I’m scrubbed with a bath mitten, lathered with aromatic soap on a balloon-shaped loofa, massaged firmly from head to toe, oiled with lavender-like oils, massaged again, bathed, set afloat in a swimming pool inside a cave, and bathed again. I’m glowing & rejuvenated, and convinced that this must be the secret to the sheer beauty of Turkish men and women.
TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME AT A HAMAM:
1. Choose a neighborhood Hamam.
I had a tough time picking a Hamam that would balance authenticity, budget and hygiene. Reading reviews was confusing, and advise from my Turkish hosts only led to touristy places because most Turks rarely go to Hamams anymore! I walked into a neighborhood off Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old city, and let the maize of by lanes serendipitously lead me to a historic Hamam. I had a look inside and saw it was hygeinic enough with mostly Turkish looking women.
2. Don’t equate price to quality.
Much of what I read about ‘popular’ Hamas said they cost 80 TL and above, but I ended up paying only 55 TL for what I thought was an excellent and authentic experience. Many hotels have higher end Hamams, but I hear they are new constructions and very westernized. Remember that a Hamam is a traditional Turkish experience, so don’t go looking for a modern western spa.
3. Opt for a hamam with separate chambers for men & women.
Unless of course you prefer otherwise! The traditional hostoric hamams all have separate chambers, but there are some catering to couples, much like a couple spa.
4. It’s okay to take off all your clothes.
Remember that this is a Turkish tradition, and however self conscious you may feel of your body, no one will judge you. I saw women of all shapes & sizes enjoying being pampered and that is perhaps the joy of travelling – feeling liberated from the norms of your own country.
5. Go with the flow.
Depending on how much English your masseuse can speak, you may be left to figure out your own comfort zone. It helps to keep an open mind; follow your masseuse’s lead, ask when in doubt, enjoy being pampered, and whatever you do, try not to stare! Take some time to reflect on the years of tradition that your Turkish bath experience is symbolic of.
6. Take your time.
Once inside the hamam, you will be left to yourself to decide how much time you want to spend in the sauna or in the swimming pool. Don’t be in a hurry to finish it, instead soak in as much of the experience you can. You can even choose to revisit the sauna or bathe a second time. The scrub and massage are usually factored as a one time thing in the price, so you need to pay extra for those if you want another round.
7. Observe what others do.
As a hamam virgin, you might not understand all the instructions made to you in broken English. Observe what the women around you are doing. For instance, in the swimming pool, it is customary to walk around in a certain circular motion; you may not understand the patterns, but you’ll feel the relief in the muscles of your feet.
8. Tip your masseuse.
As with anyone in the service sector in Turkey, your masseuse’s primary source of income is the tips received and it is considered both customary and polite to be generous with these. Depending on your experience, you could tip about 5 TL for a good experience and upto 10 TL for an outstanding one.
If you’ve never been, do you think you’d like to lose your inhibitions and give it a try?
Read more about my adventures in Turkey.
Featured image from Wikipedia, by Marsyas.