Confessions of a Hammam Virgin

Istanbul Grand bazaar

Last night Tyrhone and I went through some of our old travel photos. That set off some reminiscing, and has definitely strengthened our resolve to change our lives and set off into the world to see where it takes us.

I thought I would share an experience I had in Istanbul a couple of years ago.  It was the end of a two month overland-and-sea journey through Greece and Turkey. I was in desperate need of some pampering…

I had been in the country for a month before I got up the courage to visit a Turkish bath. Istanbul’s historic Cemberlitas Hammam, near the Grand Bazaar, was  built in 1584. With over four hundred years of experience, I figured I’d be in good hands. I’m usually pretty adventurous, but since nakedness was involved, I decided to play it safe.

Armed with a scrubbing mitt, small bar of soap and an oversized tea-towel known as a ‘pestemal’, I tried to cast off my reservations about communal bathing and entered the hammam’s inner sanctum.

As the heavy wooden doors closed behind me, I was greeted by a moist waft of steam. Light streamed in through numerous tiny, hexagonal skylights in the domed roof, bathing the marble interior in a pinkish glow. In the centre of the room, women lay around the outside of an enormous stone platform, being scrubbed aggressively by half-naked hammam attendants. Bodies adorned the centre of the stone, absorbing its heat.

Having absolutely no knowledge of hammam protocol, I self-consciously headed to a marble basin on the outside of the room, filled with warm, clear water. But, as I tried to lather up my ‘soap’, I soon realised my little yellow bar was, in fact, a plastic token!

Embarrassed, I presented it to one of the attendants who had just finished scrubbing someone senseless. She motioned abruptly toward the centre of the stone, so I obediently climbed on, carefully avoiding the other bodies. “Surely this was meant to be relaxing”, I thought, lying back with my tea-towel firmly wrapped around me. The warmth from the heated stone began to spread through me, filling me with a sense of calm.

My serenity was soon interrupted by shrieking babies and women chatting noisily with their friends. Whilst the local women seemed completely unconcerned with their nakedness, modesty had prevented me from parting with my bikini bottoms, and I felt like a bit of a prude! Liberated bodies of all shapes and sizes bounced around under the scrubber’s mitt.

Soon it was my turn. I handed over my mitt and token. The scary looking, gum chewing attendant produced a piece of gauze that she dunked in soapy water and then expertly filled with air. She pumped it over my body, covering me in millions of soapy suds. As she reached for the scrubbing mitt, I braced myself, but the firm exfoliation I received was surprisingly enjoyable. Then, I was flipped over like a breakfast sausage, and the ritual was repeated.

Next, I was shepherded over to a basin and doused in warm water, removing my protective bubble suit, returning me to my almost-birthday suit. My hair was washed, and then I was left to my own devices for a final rinse off. Squeaky clean, I made my way into the next room, where women, wrapped in fluffy towels, waited for massages. Alas, my hammam experience had come to an end.

After drying off and changing, I set out into the balmy Istanbul night feeling a little bemused, a little relaxed and very, very, clean.

Cemberlitas Hamami

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