Istanbul: Hours of Turkish bath house bliss

By Peter Calder

Peter Calder succumbs to the magic of Istanbul's famous bath houses.

Unless you are a stridently macho Kiwi bloke, you'll soon feel at ease with the rituals of the Turkish bath house or hamam. Photo / Supplied
Unless you are a stridently macho Kiwi bloke, you'll soon feel at ease with the rituals of the Turkish bath house or hamam. Photo / Supplied

I've always regretted that New Zealand has few, if any, public saunas or bathhouses that are not either meeting places for gay men or associated with gymnasiums. That's why one of the first things I wanted to do in Istanbul was discover the delights of the Turkish bath.

The opportunity came sooner than I thought. Our companion for a couple of days was an effervescent local called Ilginay, who had been deputised by the Tourist Ministry to take us under her wing for the day and, from the first moment, she had bath time in her sights.

This was good for me because she impressed upon the owner of her favourite hamam - bath house - that he should waive the charge for her companions.

"Pay the man who washes you a 10 lira (NZ$6.50) tip," she told me as she handed me two domino-like blocks entitling me to the services awaiting me.

"And the man who massages you, tip him 15 lira ($10)."

It was an obscure system, the difficulty of which presented itself to me as soon as I had disrobed in my (private, lockable) dressing room. I was to wrap myself in nothing other than a thin towel the size of a small sarong, and present myself at the door.

The 25 lira I had carefully extracted from my wallet I had no idea what to do with. Iliginay and my wife had disappeared into the woman's section with a cheery promise to see me in two hours, so I stuck the money back in my wallet and sallied forth.

The man who almost immediately took my hand, looked like Gene Hackman with a hangover. Since he was about to lay hands on me in a rather intimate fashion, I was rather hoping for a smile, but he was having none of it. He led me into the baths' main chamber, a steam-filled, high-domed room in which a dozen men reclined wetly and at ease on a large, circular marble slab.

"Lie down, efendi," he said, using the Turkish form of address that means something like "lord and master". I was starting to like the look of this.

He took one of my tokens and the small disposable loofah sponge I had been given on entry, and slid a small aluminium bowl towards me to use as a headrest.

What happened next is something of a blur, but I do remember that it was a very sodden blur. Water cascaded in panfuls and foam bloomed in sudsy piles. In between times, I was scrubbed until I felt like a prawn being peeled.

"Change!" he bellowed when he wanted me to turn over and "Sit down!" when he wanted me to sit up, but I thought it best not to offer him a free English lesson while he was armed with a loofah and needed only step up the tempo a bit to drown me.

After a few minutes I found myself being led blindly - my spectacles had disappeared in the melee - into the next room where I sat on a stool while he repeated the procedure from another angle. Then "shower", he said, pointing in one direction and, "next, massage", pointing in another.

As if sensing my embarrassment at my cashless nakedness, he rubbed forefinger and thumb together meaningfully and said "Later".

In the massage room, a man who looked like Antonio Banderas, only more handsome, worked over every square inch of my body with scented oils and sensitive fingers.

The wonderful experience was only slightly spoiled by the fact that I shared the massage room with two Kiwi blokes who, plainly embarrassed by physical contact, were constantly wondering aloud whether the men attending to them were going to "go too far" and saying "Maaaaaaaaaaate, I've never had anything like this before!"

Out in the foyer, I sipped on a glass of deliciously tart pomegranate juice (the recommended drink for the occasion) and watched the bathrobed locals chatting. I decided it was a very civilised way to spend the afternoon.

It was another hour or more before the women emerged, giggling. My heart sank as they explained why they'd taken so long.

Jacuzzis were mentioned and pedicures and plunge pools. I couldn't help thinking it was just another case of the terrible gender inequality that afflicts this part of the world.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has connections to Turkey.

Where to get scrubbed: Istanbul Hamam Is on Cemberlitas Square, only a few minutes' walk from the Blue Mosque and the centre of Sultanahmet. Admission, including a scrub bath, is about $50 and a 30-minute massage an extra $35. The pomegranate juice is priceless.

Peter Calder explored Istanbul with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey and Cathay Pacific Airways.

- NZ Herald

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