I’ve never felt so clean or smooth in my life. For two hours this evening I was soaked and steamed and scrubbed and rubbed (for the bargain price of 50 Turkish Lira)…and now I feel like a new born (in an older, non-newborn kind of way of course).
The Turkish hammam is one of those exquisitely foreign rituals that makes you feel like you’ve been doing it wrong your whole life. I was greeted with apple tea, led to a locked cubicle to ‘change’ into a towel, then pulled along a maze of narrow corridors, feeling like I was either on my way to a magical water park or about to be embarrassingly mugged.
Thankfully, it was the former. Marbled floors and steps framed the rectangle room of steaming fountains and stone arches. Spread across the large marble platform in the middle of the room was a very round Turkish lady, completely starkers and mid lather.
My hostess led me to a step and basin, ripped the towel from around me, poured a bucket of hot water on my head and said ‘wash’. So there I was, dripping, naked, shocked and standing in a room full of local women, who all seemed to think I was both funny and strange.
After my ‘wash’ (pouring warm water over myself self consciously), it was my turn to step up to the pedestal of all things clean. As I stood there being scrubbed down with exfoliating mittens, I had to admire the dedication of the Turkish wash maiden: she was also naked, except for her red undies, one leg was braced against the platform and her tongue was out the side of her mouth with concentration. At one point she moved my arm to swing right into one of her bigger-than-life boobs, and flashed me a big toothless grin. All I could do was blush, avoid eye contact and feel like the most prudish woman alive.
Eventually I relaxed, forgetting about being naked in a room full of people and enjoying the steam and suds. After a thorough exfoliation, I was soaped (even my eyes, between my fingers, my face), rinsed, shampooed, massaged with oil, rinsed, led to the sauna, rinsed again, then hit up for baksheesh. The end of each phase was indicated with a slap on my very bare butt and a pointing figure: sit, stand, wash, move.
By the end of the experience, I was floating on a steam high; muscles like jelly, fingertips so crinkled they were numb. Compared to the regular western shower, or even the most decadent candle-lit bubble bath, this experience was the most satisfying, luxurious way to wash.
There were a few other highlights in my day…
- gazing up at the decorative domes of Ana Sofya (Church of Holy Wisdom), completed in AD 537 (seriously old)
- wandering the eerie rows in the Basilica Cistern, which was built in AD532 to store 80,000 cubic meters of water
- loosing myself in the intricately pattern tiles of the Blue Mosque, and active mosque completed in 1616
- entering my first haggling war with a man in possession of some very pretty harem pants (I paid way too much at 15 TL per pair)
- dodging the cat calls of young Turkish men touting their wares (“Hello Lady, please hold your horses for me”, “You are the best Miss”, “Hello, hello Miss, you dropped something…oh it’s my heart”)
- smoking sheesha with two Spanish (Catalonian) girls on a rooftop terrace
- taking a lift with a local to the hammam and experiencing the madness of Istanbul peak hour
- talking about travels and cultures with two middle-aged psychedelic trance musicians, who were on their way to play at a music festival on a Turkish island.
All up, a great day!