It is completely normal to find yourself mostly naked in Istanbul while a middle-aged, overweight Turkish man gives you a bubble bath, right?? I sure hope so, because that’s how I spent last Thursday evening.
This was not my first time in Istanbul but it is the first time I chose to go for the traditional hamam experience and Turkish bath. I was ready for the shvitz and the scrub down. I did a bit of research into the options and settled on the generic tourist version. So I headed to Çemberlitaş Hamamı and, well, things got interesting in a hurry.
The entrance is a non-descript door in a row of commercial shops that cater to tourists. I stepped inside and the mood changed a bit, with some evidence of the historical origins of the space starting to show through. Cemberlitas Hamami dates to 1584 and that’s traditional enough for me.
Another set of doors brought me into the lobby area, with plenty of visual reminders that this is a “old school” bath house (albeit with a gift shop off to one side and a juice bar on the other).
From there, I went upstairs into a small dressing room and changing from street clothes into the pestemal, effectively a loin cloth. The dressing rooms are not particularly private – they all have windows looking out into the main area – but I suppose that’s part of the adjustment towards the communal experience. Wrapped in my pestemal and wearing the flip flops provided, I made my way down to the main bath room. From the lobby area I was escorted into the baths by a large, middle-aged Turkish man who communicated mostly through grunts and hand gestures. Per his instructions I claimed a spot on the slab and began my slow roast and sweat. The goal at this point was to softens my skin and prepare my body for what was about to happen.
The focus of the room is the massive slab of marble in the middle. It is easily 20 feet across and heated; guests lie down on the marble to raise their body temperature and initiate the sweating process. The dozen or so basins around the room allow for mixing of hot and cold water from the taps. These are decorated with intricate carvings, though the room is mostly built for function, not style. Unlike the PR photos, looking up shows a somewhat dilapidated ceiling with a naked bulb hanging from the center.
My masseur returned. He was dressed just like the rest of us in the bath with his pestemal wrapped around his waist but also a plastic badge pinned on with an ID number; this became important later.
Prompted in broken English, grunts and gestures, I took up position on the edge of the slab to begin the formal part of the bath. The masseur took the loofa-glove I was given at the front desk. Using that and several buckets of hot water, he began to scrub me down from head to toe. A few gallons of water and a few minutes later I was told to “switch” and, after a couple of mistakes on my part, figured out that this meant to flip over. More water and more scrubbing. This mix of mediocre massage and exfoliating scrub was not inspiring, but the best was yet to come.
I was still face down on the slab when the scrubbing stopped briefly. I could hear him gathering more supplies but couldn’t see what was happening. Turns out it was time for my bubble bath.
From a large basin he drew out lots and lots of bubbles and poured them over me, and followed with a second round of scrubbing. Face down on the slab, I had to time my breathing between the stretching, massage, and fresh doses of bubbles pouring over my head. (Only when I watched it happen later to someone else, did I totally figure out what had been happening to me.)
After the bubbles came another rinse and a shampooing outside in the foyer to the steam room. And then, naturally, the masseur gestured emphatically at his id tag to make sure I would remember who he was and offer him a little something extra for the effort later. I had the good fortune of trying to explain the concept of the “supplement” (tip) to another guest in the baths. In French. That was, I’m sure, more challenging for him than for me.
One good bit of information I got from my research was that after the formal portion of the bath completed I was allowed to head back inside rather than leave immediately. I spent another 20-ish minutes laying on the marble, relaxing and staring up at the domed ceiling and the light coming in through the windows at the top.
And thinking about the fact that I just received a bubble bath and a loofah scrub from a loin-clothed man in Istanbul.
Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.