OK, I’ll admit it. I was kind of freaked out about going to a Hamam (Turkish Bath). After hearing from several friends that it was a somewhat horrific experience, I initially had decided that I didn’t want to do it. Christine, however, was very keen for us to try it because she figured it would be good to experience a unique, traditional practice. After some back and forth, I reluctantly agreed to go through with it. Having now come out the other side and lived to tell the tale, I can say that it wasn’t all that bad, and I might go as far to say it was a good experience. Wouldn’t rush back to do it again, but I’m glad I did it.
The quick run down on Hamams are that they are bath houses that have been around in Turkey for centuries. Back in the day people didn’t have their own bathroom in their home so they went to a bath house to get bathed. In Turkey, the Ottoman’s were apparently very fond of their bathhouses so you have hundreds of them all around Istanbul, of which around 60 are still active. The side of bathhouses that some people find a little “stressful” today is how you actually get bathed. What was described to me was having a massive old Turkish guy scrubbing me down so that my skin is raw and then manhandling me with all his weight… as I said, I wasn’t really up for it at first.
Looking through Tripadvisor for the best Hamam to go to, it was clear that there isn’t really a Hamam that everyone likes. For all the Hamams there were people who were quite traumatized from their experience (not accounting for high-end Hamams that give you a luxurious yet less authentic spa experience). The one Hamam that seemed to fare slightly better than the others on Tripadvisor was Cemberlitas Hamam so we settled on that. Cemberlitas was originally built back in 1584, making it one of the oldest Hamams still in operation. Upon arrival, Christine and I were given our tokens and wash cloths and then we were quickly separated into the men’s and women’s Hamams (no couples treatments in Hamams!). I was told to strip down and cover myself with a towel, then come back to the entrance of the men’s Hamam room. After doing so, I was greeted at the entrance by a slight, smiling, older Turkish guy who took my token and grabbed my hand. Now, there really wasn’t any turning back.
When we walked through the Hamam door we came into this outside area littered with running taps and releasing water into marble sinks. I was then guided from here into the central Hamam chamber. I quickly recognized this place as what you see in the photos when people talk about Hamams. The room was warm and steamy. Overhead was this beautiful domed ceiling with many large round holes that allowed the sunlight to pierce through. Under the dome was a large roundish flat marble stone, probably about 6 metres in diameter.
Other than me and my attendant, there was only one other guy in the room, who looked like a customer, lying down on the marble stone. I was then told to also lie on the marble (to be clear, my guy didn’t speak all that much English so it was a mixture grunts, pointing and a few broken words). Shortly after lying down a bucket of warm water was dumped on me. And then the attendant left. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at this point, but figured I would just lie there and see where things went. I felt quite relaxed in the Hamam. Great temperature and soothing with all the steam. And the beauty of the old structure added to the ambience. To think that for hundreds of years that men have been coming here to bathe, it felt very cool to be going through this experience (which to Christine’s credit is exactly what she had intended). The silence in the room was broken when a big burly Turkish guy entered the room. My heart sank. My first thought was that this guy is going to destroy me. I then breathed a sigh of relief when he approached the other guy in the room. A few minutes later, the smaller guy who had originally brought me into the room reappeared. “Ah I get it, this guy is my bather.”
He started off by grabbing my wash cloth and using it to scrub me down. This was kind of like an exfoliating process. Fortunately, it didn’t feel as rough as other people had described. Kind of soothing actually. He also mixed in a bit of a massage here and there. After a few minutes, he had pretty much exfoliated my whole body. He then rinsed me again and moved onto the soaping phase. At this point he put soapy water into the washcloth and somehow this created a ton of foam which he lathered all over me. The whole part of this washing process probably went for about 8 minutes. All in all, it wasn’t as rough as I had expected. There were a few times when I felt like he was a being a little “too thorough” with his cleaning coverage of my body parts, and I certainly wouldn’t describe him as gentle, but really not all that bad.
After being rinsed down again, I was then led back to the outer room I had seen when I first entered. Here I was given a short massage, rinsed down by slightly cooler water and that was it. My guy then took me back into the main Hamam room where he told me (again through grunts and broken English) that I could stay here and relax and that I should tip him on the way out.
So that was it, my first Hamam experience. As I said, I’m glad I did it. I know that other people have had pretty horrendous experiences so it sounds like it can be quite variable, probably also depending on the bather you get.
Finally, a big thank you my beautiful wife for convincing me to go through with it. You always know best :).