There are some things you just have to do in certain countries – things like drinking wine in la belle France, falling off your first surfboard in Australia, haggling for all you’re worth in an Asian market, or trying a traditional Turkish bath in Turkey.
If you’ve never been into a hammam the idea of being washed by a stranger, or making some hideous etiquette blunder while half naked, can be pretty daunting. So, to save your blushes, here’s a girl’s guide to scrubbing up Turkish style so you know what to expect.
Hammams are traditionally separated by sex, so you’ll generally be in an all-female environment – especially in the larger (tourist friendly) bath-houses in Istanbul. In smaller establishments, you might have male attendants doing your wash, but there will be women on hand if this makes you really uncomfortable.
Step 1: What do you want?
Deciding what you want from the plethora of options can be the hardest bit. Do you go for a self-service (as it were), a wash and soap massage, an extra oil massage… the people on reception will speak the most English and be able to advise you. In larger places you’ll be given a token corresponding to the treatment you’ve chosen and shown into a changing room with lockers for your things.
Step 2: What do I wear?
In female only hammams, you can go with what’s comfortable – from staying in your swimsuit to bearing it all. If there are male attendants, keep your bikini bottoms on at least. Ask when you pick your treatment what’s appropriate if you’re not sure. You’ll be given a thin cloth, like an oversized gingham tea-towel to wrap up in – wear this and grab some flipflops; there’s nothing more slippery than wet marble!
Step 3: So what do I do?
Inside the hammam there’ll be a main hot chamber with a marble göbektaşı (belly stone) slab in the middle for your treatment and seats and sinks around the outside for washing off and chilling out. Depending on the size, there may also be a couple of pools for a swim or a float. When you first go in, grab a space on the göbektaşı and lie back and relax – you’ll be left to work up a sweat for 15-20mins before an attendant grabs you.
Once an attendant has you in hand, they’ll start off by sluicing you off with cool water and using a mitt to rub off the dirt, sweat, dead skin and general grubbiness that your pores have released from your time on the slab. This will finish with another sluicing and a breather to relax a bit more.
Then come the bubbles. These aren’t the mystic perfumes of the east I’m afraid; chances are your bubbles will come from a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo. Lying flat on the slab again, your attendant will blow up a pillowcase full of foam, douse you with it and give your limbs a massage each in turn. Beware that these ladies are seriously strong – consider learning “softer” in Turkish if you really don’t like a firm massage, or “ouch” is fairly universal too! After a final sluice, unless you paid the extra for an oil massage, you’re free to relax as long as you like. Most tourists head straight for the changing rooms at this point, but it’s a gloriously decadent and indulgent feeling if you linger – warm up again and sluice yourself off until your limbs feel like over cooked noodles.
Step 4: Time for tea
Finishing off the ritual is slightly different in every bath-house you come across. But the nicest way I’ve found, is sipping on a glass of traditional Turkish tea wrapped up in your towel before you put your clothes back on again. In a little hammam in Fethiye, the two Aussie girls and I who’d been in the bath together found out all about the family and lifestyle of the guy who owned the hammam over a cup of tea.
Many places will sell traditional towels, loofahs and bathing products if you want to take the experience home with you too.
Inspired? Try out one of these two Turkish baths in Istanbul:
Cağaloğlu Hamamı: By far the most spectacular of Istanbul’s hamams; its steam rooms are lavishly arched and domed, and decorated with tulip tiles.
Çemberlitaş Hamamı: Built by the famous architect Sinan in 1584, this is a classic hamam experience.