Turkish bath, aka hamam. Fabulous. I would love it if there was a way for me to fully convey the gloriousness of going to the hamam, but I don't think words will be enough. And, it being a place where people are more than half naked, I obviously couldn't take any photographs, which is a pity. I believe that going to the hamam will be my favourite thing about living in Istanbul. Here is my feeble, but nevertheless, very long description of the experience.
When you arrive, you pay at the front desk for what 'package' you want. We opted for the mid-range deal, which includes use of all the facilities, like hot pools, showers, the large marble gobektasi (a raised platform above a heating source), etc. The key ingredient however, is being washed by a bath attendant. Now, I think it may not be easy for the uninitiated to truly understand how fantastic this really is. Trust me, its fantastic.
But there's no room for being shy in the hamam! You walk in with only a towel and sandals. You are given a little package with some brand new bathing suit bottoms/underpants things, and told to put them on. Before you know it, a kindly, motherly half-naked, and usually rather plump woman comes and takes you by the hand, speaking a bit of English, 'Come, come, come. This way'. Then she whirls you around, and WHOOSH, she's just stripped you of your towel! Then she lays it out for you on the gobektasi, where all the other nearly naked people are laying about, steaming themselves and waiting for their turn to be bathed. You lay down and she proceeds to scrub you down with some warm water and an exfoliating glove/washcloth sort of thing. You can feel all your dead dry skin being scrubbed right off. It feel great and refreshing. Then with a pat on your behind, she tells you to flip over so she can get your other side.
Next, she does this little trick with something like a pillowcase. She must fill it with soap of some kind, some water and then air. Then, she squeezes the bag, and all these silky, luxuriant bubbles come cascading all over you. Oh, it feels amazing. So soft and smooth and light. Then, with her hands, she washes you and sort of gives you a massage at the same time. Pure bliss. Now, I don't think I've been washed by anybody since I was probably about 4 or 5 years old, and I'm guessing any one reading this is the same. You might think it would be a bit weird having a total stranger wash you, but let me tell you, it isn't in the slightest. It is extremely soothing and just feels great. I couldn't help but smile as I laid there on this giant warm marble stone, with my eyes closed, just soaking it all in. Then, she sits you up, and WHOOSH again, you've just been doused with fresh cool water, and your skin feels all tingly. Then she takes you over to this beautifully carved marble sink, sits you down and washes your hair. Another douse or two of fresh water, and she shuffles you along to the hot pools.
Now you're on your own, to do as you please, taking turns in the 36 or 38 degree pools (in Celsius). When you start feeling too warm, you get out and go to another little nook/room where there are more of the beautiful marble sinks, fill yourself up an intricately carved metal bowl with water and dump in over yourself to cool off. You can do this as much as you want. When you have finally had enough of the warmth, there is a room where you can take a break and have some water, tea or juice and chat away with your girl friends, about life, about men, about whatever.
I think I am going to try to find extra lessons to teach every week, just so I can finance going to the hamam more often. This whole bath house thing was invented by the Romans thousands of years ago and was something that most people frequently enjoyed, from Roman times into Ottoman times, to the not so distant past. Here it was an everyday part of life. Men certainly go to hamam too, but for women it had special importance because women spent so much time in the home. This was a chance to be free for a day, catch up with friends, have a day without domestic responsibilities, get out of the house.
As I sat soaking in the hot bath, looking up at an old arched brick ceiling that looked pretty ancient, in a building dating back to the 15oos, I couldn't help but think about the idea of progress, and how we seem to think history and development go in a straight line, where the past was worse and we are all much better off than people in the olden days. This might be true for many things, but I think a world without bath houses is in need of much improving!
Here is the link to the webpage for the bath that I went to. It has some pictures so maybe you'll be able to get a bit of a visual from those.