I just returned from a week in Turkey with the boyfriend, and it was, as expected, fantastic. We hit the beach, took a cruise, went parasailing, and traveled to Pamukkale (the cotton castle) and the ancient city of Hierapolis, which boasts an amphitheatre from the second century and a natural spring bath. We visited a carpet factory and watched the creation process of handmade carpets, drank loads of traditional apple tea, and hit the local market and bazaar. A high point of a great trip, however, was taking a Turkish bath (the Hamam). I’d heard of Turkish baths plenty of times, but didn’t really understand what one entailed. Figuring that the best way to find out would be to try it, I signed the two of us up for one the second day of our visit.
Turkish baths have been around for hundreds of years, so they’ve had ample opportunity to refine the process. Traditionally, baths were built by the Seljuks and Ottomans in densely-populated regions as public bathing facilities, and the Roman rulers took their baths in the natural springs.
While public Turkish baths are common in nearly every city in Turkey, I paid extra for a private bath, and it was worth every lira; when I am a very rich woman, I will be doing this every Sunday. The bath I took was on-site at our hotel, so there are variations (and extras) from the public baths, seeing as the hotel is geared towards mostly Northern-European tourists. Yet the essential experience remains: total bliss, relaxation, and the sensation that you are really doing something cleansing for your body.
We arrived in our bathing suits and were given a towel, then escorted into the steam room. This is a room with wooden benches and dry-heat, similar to other steam rooms I’ve seen in Europe and the States. After five or ten minutes in the steam room, we were led to the wet heat of the sauna, where the moisture in the air is visible. By the time we emerged, we were absolutely dripping. It’s like holding your face over a pot of boiling water and inhaling it into your lungs, but a full-body experience. I imagined my pores expunging impurities as the sweat puddled around my feet.
We went into a room of marble, with faucets on the walls and a large marble block in the center. I was attended to by Alexander, and my boyfriend by a woman called Hazan. My boyfriend and I laid on our bellies opposite each other on our cloths, while Alexander and Hazan filled bowls of warm water from the taps and splashed them over the length of our bodies. The whole thing is so weirdly intimate it was impossible not to giggle, and fortunately Alexander and Hazan, who were also in bathing suits, had good senses of humor. They were very friendly, and Hazan even gave my boyfriend a couple of smart smacks across the bottom when he wriggled as she touched his feet (I think this was her own special touch, not traditional).
Next came the part I most associate with Turkish baths, which is the body scrubbing. The most thorough exfoliation I’ve ever had in my life, Alexander used a scrubbing mitt on every inch of exposed flesh. I had been worried about this bit, as I have a skin condition, but he was gentle on the spots where my skin is raw. I was actually appalled by the amount of dead skin removed in this process. I kept thinking about lizards. Embarrassingly, Alexander seemed a little surprised too – they let us keep our mitts, though, so never again! To wash off the lizard skin, more warm water was poured over us, which is incredibly relaxing. It reminded me of my parents washing my hair with cupfuls of water from the bath when I was a kid.
After the second rinse came the soaping. Alexander and Hazan soaked cylindrical pieces of cloth in the now-soapy bowls. They whipped the cloths around so they filled with air like balloons, and then squeezed the air out of the cloth from top to bottom, covering us in suds. I have pictures of us from this point, covered in suds three feet high with only our sweaty heads sticking out. We were then treated to a full-body rub-down before we were rinsed off again with clean water.
Shiny and pink, we were delighted by the silkiness of our skin. Another woman fetched us and took us to a Jacuzzi, and waiters brought us hot apple tea to drink in champagne glasses. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the boyfriend as delighted as he was in the hot tub with his champagne glass (I heard him mutter, “I was made for this life!”). I would only put my feet in, even though it was perplexing to the staffers. I don’t know how to say “festering pool of bacteria” in Turkish, but after contracting an ear infection from a hot tub at age 10, I stay far away from them. It was nice to cool down, anyway.
After we finished out drinks and I took numerous pictures of the boyfriend holding up his glass amongst the bubbles and grinning like a kid at Christmas, we were brought robes and taken to a dimly-lit room for hour-long, full-body massages. I know what you’re thinking – there’s more? Indeed there was. I said to my boyfriend later that I thought it was a perfect couples-massage session. Tranquil, and our respective massage therapists attractive without being threatening.
When the massage finished, we dressed in our robes to lie by a blue-lit internal pool in a darkened room, and his massage therapist applied mud masks. Following the ten-minute mud mask, we were instructed to have a final wash-off in a shower area, and then free to swim in the pool for as long as we liked. By this point, we were purring, stretching, and preening like blissed-out cats. It was one of the nicest things I’ve ever done for my body – simultaneously invigorating and soothing – and every shower since then for the last two weeks has been anti-climactic, to say the least.
The cost was 42 Euros per person (and I was also given a certificate for a free hot stone massage). Public baths are much cheaper. In fact, Turkey is such a cheap holiday that this was by far our priciest expenditure, even more than the nine-hour booze cruise to diving coves and the fourteen-hour journey to Pamukkale and back. Even at 84 Euros, I consider it a terrific bargain (especially now that I am a Turkish bath addict and am going to have to seek out facilities in London, at doubtless twice the price for half the experience). My conclusion? Do this. Ideally, do this in Turkey, but if that’s not possible, find somewhere reputable and give it a try. And don’t forget to say “teşekkürler” to your attendants.