Another quintessential Turkish experience is a visit to the hammam. For those who haven’t been, or haven’t heard of hammams, it’s a wonderful Middle-Eastern tradition. Hammams are public bath houses, and vary from the ultra-luxurious to beyond basic. I’d experienced the very basic hammams – a wonderful way to interact with local people – and decided that while we were in Istanbul I’d have to take Mum to a hammam. Or to a ‘hummer’, as she kept calling it. The most popular hammam [at least with tourists] in Istanbul is Cemberlitas, which is located in a beautiful old building just near the Grand Bazaar.
Hammams are generally split into completely separate sections for men and women, or have separate times for each gender. A few now offer mixed hammam services, but these are aimed at tourists as locals wouldn’t dream of bathing with the opposite sex. Not only though are hammams a place to get clean, they’ve been an important place for socialising for hundreds of years. It’s not somewhere you go for a quick shower – in some places, visiting the hammam might be the social event of the week, a chance to catch up with friends and gossip. It can take hours.
I’ve visited hammams in various parts of Turkey, in Syria and in Morocco. Each hammam experience was very different – from being welcomed with open arms in a very local hammam in Sanliurfa, frequented by local Kurdish women who were fascinated that this little white girl also had tattoos and fought over who got to give me a massage, to being shunned in the hammam in Fes where an obese local woman took offence to the fact that two foreigners dared enter her territory. I’d never visited a fancy hammam before, and so Cemberlitas it was.
In the smaller local hammams, you strip off and usually bathe yourself in a huge heated, steamy chamber. You find yourself a spot and lay down your mat, find some buckets and start collecting buckets of hot and cold water. If the attendants are free, and take a liking to you, they’ll bring the water to you. You generally take your own soap, kese glove, mat, towel and scoop. A kese glove is an exfoliating glove, and they can vary from soft and inoffensive to ones that look like they belong in the kitchen for scrubbing the filthiest pots imaginable. If you’re a novelty, local women may ask to wash your hair and help you with the kese. I’ve mentioned my experience in Morocco, where the ladies there thought that if they scrubbed hard enough my freckles would come off. Otherwise, you relax a while to let your skin soften, then scrub with the glove, then bathe with soap, and wash your hair. You scoop the water from bucket to bucket to get the right temperature. In some cases, you try to ignore the mold creeping over the ceiling and down the walls.
Not so with Cemberlitas. The marble floors were slippery but clean, and there was no mold to be seen or angry women mad that they’ve lost their standing as the most interesting person there.
Cemberlitas is beautiful and welcoming, and upon entry they hand you a package containing a kese glove, disposable underwear, service tokens and locker keys. You collect a wrap, get undressed and enter the hammam itself in your standard-issue black underpants and your cloth wrap. Once inside, you try to find a place on the central heated stone and relax, awaiting your turn to be scrubbed and massaged. Lying on your back, you can appreciate the beauty of the building with its marble detail and high domed ceiling.
It’s not the place for people who are shy about their bodies. Our section was for women only, and come on – everyone there has seen breasts before. And if you take a look around you’ll see people of all shapes and sizes. It’s also very relaxing, lying on a slab of heated marble in a steamy room.
When it’s your turn, you’ll be tapped on the ankle and asked for your token, which determines what services you’ve paid for. The attendants lie you down either on the edge of the marble slab or in an alcove and start washing you with bubbles. They have these amazing web-like things that produce an inordinate amount of foam and bubbles, and it feels incredibly soft on your skin. They’ll work this into your hair, too. Once you’re appropriately soft it’s time for kese, the scrub, and this is the part that makes you realise you’ve probably never been truly clean before. The gloves used at Cemberlitas aren’t too harsh, and it would be relaxing except for the attendants jerking you around like a puppet to ensure you’ve been properly scoured.
The kese was my one disappointment at Cemberlitas. It felt like they did a very half-hearted job, likely due to the number of visitors and the limited time they have for each. Once they’d finished with me, I took the glove and retreated into one of the alcoves with marble basins, and gave myself another scrub. I’d been travelling for a while, and I figured that I probably had a little more dirt ingrained in my skin than the average visitor! I poured deliciously warm water over myself using the scoops provided, waiting for Mum to be finished.
One thing I found quite unique about Cemberlitas was that they have a heated pool to immerse yourself in. From what I’d learned travelling in the Middle East, this is quite unusual, as it’s not considered to be clean to immerse yourself in water others are using, regardless of whether you’re clean to start with. Nonetheless it felt incredibly luxurious. The water was beautifully hot, and I could feel it seeping into my tired muscles. I could have stayed in there for hours. I hadn’t had a hot bath since Yalta about three months earlier.
Once you’re done – you can remain in the hammam for as long as you choose after your scrub and wash has been completed by the attendants – you collect your belongings and return to the changing rooms to get dressed. There are mirrors and hair-dryers available to use – essential in winter when you definitely don’t want to step outside with wet hair!
Once you’re dressed, you have the option to chill out and enjoy a selection of juices and teas – at an extra cost of course. You’re expected to tip your attendant of course, although this is at your discretion.
You can’t take photographs inside, for obvious reasons – who wants a tourist taking photos of them half-naked and bathing?
Overall, I felt the experience at Cemberlitas was more about the gorgeous setting than the service. It was polite and prompt, if not as extensive as that of local hammams with regular visitors and knowing expectations. It’s pricey, but for most visitors it’s something they’ll probably only do once and then only for the novelty value. Still, I left feeling wonderful and certainly don’t regret our visit. I wish we had these in Australia, although if we did no one could afford to use them. I do recommend that visitors interested in hammams try a variety of places in Turkey, as each one will give you new experiences and, in the case of little local hammams, often rather interesting stories!
For anyone interested in Cemberlitas, you can find more information on their website at http://www.cemberlitashamami.com