Istanbul: Baring all for a steamy scrub

By Megan Singleton

Leave modesty at the door to get the best treatment at a Turkish bathhouse, writes Megan Singleton.

Forget comfy massage beds and pillows. At a Turkish bath, or hamam, you lie on a stone plinth butt-naked and a woman scrubs you down with gritty soap. Photo / Thinkstock
Forget comfy massage beds and pillows. At a Turkish bath, or hamam, you lie on a stone plinth butt-naked and a woman scrubs you down with gritty soap. Photo / Thinkstock

You must go to a hamam," advised those I spoke to about my upcoming trip to Istanbul.

"They're so amazing. Make sure you have the works."

So, being one to trust my friends' judgment, I sought out the second-best bathhouse in Istanbul and sacrificed my modesty on a stone altar under the dome of the Galatasaray Hamami.

The oldest hamam in Istanbul, it was built in 1557 and is located in the touristy (read, spendy) part of the city, Sultanahmet, between the Hagia Sofia museum and the Blue Mosque.

Galatasaray was even mentioned in a history book of bathhouses in my room at the Tomtom Suites. As luck would have it, it was also a five-minute walk from the hotel.

I hauled myself up the steep streets with high expectations, undeterred by its location hidden down a backstreet and the colourful graffiti sprayed on the surrounding walls.

I wasn't even concerned when the portly man with little English processed my credit card ($70) after I pointed to "The Works" on the menu board.

But when the short man with slicked hair and untucked shirt who was summoned to escort me around the side of the building to the women's entrance couldn't fathom where New Zealand was, causing me, for the first time in my life, to say I was Australian, I guess I had it coming.

My chaperone left me at the bottom of the stairs and I walked up to reception, where a woman speaking even less English pointed to a glass-encased changing room and said "all off".

Inside was a thin towel and a pair of wooden clogs that I teetered in as she took me by the hand through the cooling room lined with shower cubicles and marble basins and into the humid bathhouse.

She whipped off the towel I had secured firmly around me and there I was, naked but for the key to my glasshouse.

To my horror, two other women in the room were in bikinis. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a naked woman, skinny as a stick insect, lying on the stone plinth. I was gestured to lie down beside her.

The pictures on the website show gorgeous blonde things sloughing down attractive tourists - in the women's hamam, that is. But the middle-aged ladies who came in wearing mismatched bras and knickers actually put me at ease.

They didn't stop talking to each other and my lady, who must have been in her 60s, had a wardrobe malfunction with her boob tube that she didn't bother to correct.

After marinating in the steam for about 15 minutes, I was motioned to lie on my tummy and she used a cotton mitt with gritty soap inside to slough off my dead skin cells. This is the painful part in men's hamams, but not here.

She scrubbed my arms, legs and back, then very matter-of-factly had me roll over to do my front - my whole front.

Just as I sat up for her to scrub my sides a group of naked women entered the room leaving the outer door open, too. I might as well have been sitting in the town square. They gathered around the walls to watch and learn. Awkward.

I was led to the basins to slosh tepid water from a pewter bowl over myself, then back to the slab, this time for the wash and massage.

In a wet, pillowcase-like cloth she placed soap, then tossed and twisted it until it puffed into a balloon and I disappeared under a mountain of squeezed-out froth. I rolled over and nearly slid on to the floor. She washed my front.

Then back to the basins for another rinse, where she took up a position on a plastic kiddie stool behind me. Out came a bottle of Turkish Pantene to wash my hair.

And that was it. No conditioner, and I hadn't brought a brush. I was left to rinse off for as long as I wished (I didn't know if anything more was to happen actually) and eventually toddled to the door for a towel to exit into reception and get dressed behind the clear glass.

Would I do it again? You betcha.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies 19 times a week to Singapore from Auckland and Christchurch, then direct to Istanbul.

Accommodation: Tomtom Suites, set in a former Franciscan monastery.

The hamam experience: See Galatasarayhamami.com.

Megan Singleton travelled to Istanbul with assistance from Singapore Airlines, and stayed as a guest of Tomtom Suites.

- NZ Herald

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