October 19, 2010

Hitting the hamam

Before I went to Istanbul last month, I had a few people recommending a trip to a hamam, or Turkish bath. I wasn't 100% sure of what was involved, I just had an idea that it was sort of like a sauna, but you had an attendant, well, attending to you. I looked online for stories that would give me a better picture of what the experience was like and I came across this clip of Michael Palin visiting a hamam on one of his adventures:

After watching that, I thought there was no way I was going to go to one. It look more torturous than relaxing. But a couple of friends insisted that it was a wonderful experience I wouldn't want to miss. So I decided I would visit the Cagaloglu hamam and give it a go.

Upon arriving, I couldn't get the memory of going to the baths in Budapest out of my mind. Instead of unwinding in a beautiful setting, I was tense after dealing with the unusual customs, language barrier, and gruff women attendants. It was a memorable experience, but perhaps not for the right reasons. Fortunately, my visit to the hamam was better.

After choosing what treatment I wanted (the one including a massage and scrub), I was lead towards the women's changing rooms, along with a girly group of 5-6 Dutch women. I was lead to a changing room, a fair-sized cabin where I left my shoes and clothes and then wrapped myself in a towel that was more like an oversized tea towel. I went back to the center of the room and waited to be taken into the bath area. From the moment I left the changing room I also was no longer wearing my glasses, which was disorienting and annoying. I really wished I had contacts. Before we went into the baths, I was given a slip of paper with some indecipherable notes on it and was told to choose a pair of slippers to wear. I had heard about this. They are wooden sandals with just a strap across the toes and I missed joining the Dutch girls being lead to the bath because I couldn't find a pair that fit well. Walking in them was rather uncomfortable and awkward, and then downright scary once you entered the wet and steamy bath area. I don't know why they don't use something more practical.

I entered the bath, blind and attempting not to break my neck on the marble floor. I had no idea what to do. An attendant passed by though, looked at my slip of paper, which was quickly getting wet from the steam, and told me to sit on a bench along the outside edge of the bath. Near me were two British women who seemed as confused and baffled as I was as to what the process was. They had had their slips of paper taken from them though, so an attendant who came by wasn't sure what to do with them. I made sure to keep hold of my piece of paper.

The room was fairly large and octagonal, with an octagonal slab at the center. On this slab were 8 women being massaged and scrubbed by attendants. Around the edge of the room were little basins of water which had a metal bowl in them to ladle out some water for rinsing or cooling down. It was a beautiful room, though I missed out on the details by not having my glasses on.

An attendant finally came over to claim me, holding my arm as we walked over to the slab so I wouldn't slip. She had me lie down on my back (I was naked at this point) and proceeded to scrub me with a big, rough mitt. A friend quite accurately described it as feeling like you are being cleaned by a big cat tongue. After scrubbing my stomach, she pointed down at all the dirt and dead skin she'd gotten off. Uh, thanks for that.

We then walked back over to the basin and she poured water over me to rinse off the gunk. This part was hard for me; I don't like water going over my face and this was made worse by someone else being in control of it. So I stood there with my eyes shut tight and my breath held, waiting for her to pour the water, but then I ran out of breath and took a breath right as the water went over me. I didn't choke, but I got quite a bit of water up my nose.

She shuffled me back over to the slab and began the massage. It was not as intense as the one Michael Palin received, but it was fairly rough. I remember it was quite painful when she ran what felt like her knuckles down the backs of my legs. After this, she washed me with soapy water, which made me very slippery on the marble. She would bump against me and it felt like if she pushed just a bit harder, I'd go sliding out into the middle of the slab.

When I was sitting waiting for my turn, I thought the attendants were very gruff and not particularly nice, but, even though they didn't talk much because their English is limited, my attendant was quite sweet and asked if I was enjoying it and such. The whole thing must have still been making me tense though because she told me to relax at one point.

After the wash, we went over to the basin when I now dreaded for the soapy water to be rinsed from my face. Then I sat on the floor and my attendant washed my hair, followed by one last horrible rinsing. That was the end of her services, but she pointed to a hot room I could enjoy and I could stay in the bath as long as I wanted.

I shuffled over to the hot room which was quite nice and empty, and I tried to relax after all of that. It definitely did go better than the Budapest baths experience. I sat in the main room a little longer, then rinsed and headed out. You exchanged your tea towel (which was by now soaked) for a normal towel that was big and fluffy. I sat awhile in the changing area and had a cup of mint tea and watched the attendants go about their business as they took a break in there away from the bath. My attendant was there and smiled and asked if I liked it. At one point I wasn't sure if she was expecting me to tip her. I didn't and later worried I that I should have.

So I will add to my friends' recommendations and say that a hamam visit in Istanbul is a unique part of going there. I very much liked the Cagaloglu hamam, though perhaps others are more off the beaten path and visited by more locals. I'd be curious to visit a Dutch hamam and see how the experience compares, though it's just not the same as being in Turkey.