In which I visit a Turkish bath

Happy Halloween!

Today I ran some errands (the Turkish post office is very confusing!) but mostly took it easy. In the afternoon I went to one of the best-known hamams (Turkish baths) in the city, Cağaloğlu (built 1741, and apparently one of the 1000 places you must see before you die). I was undecided between this one and the equally famous, even older Çemberlitaş, but once I got on-site, the decision was easy: as I approached Çemberlitaş a tout at the doorway called out, “Hello, excuse me, lady! Where are you from? Are you interested…” I fled. On the short walk to Cağaloğlu I wondered what I’d do if I got the same reception there, but no, once I arrived, I found absolutely no one in the entryway — unless you count some poorly reproduced B/W photos of Kate Moss posing within the hamam. I stepped tentatively into the main room and found it, too, almost empty. There was one woman sitting at a low table, and when she saw me, she hailed another woman in the corner, and that lady came over to me with a broad smile and a friendly hello. I paid the rather exorbitant price of 72 liras (about $40) for “self service,” which was emphatically that: I was given a square of soap and a simple scrubbing mitt, guided to a private changing cubicle with a red-and-white checked cloth to wrap myself in, and then left to my own devices. Instructions came in the form of friendly negatives, when I started barefoot toward the hamam area (“no, lady,” gesturing toward some awkward wooden slippers) and took a towel before I went into the hamam (“lady, no, after“).

I had expected this centuries-old hamam to be spacious and luxurious, but it was — in spite of domed ceiling and marble everything — almost more utilitarian than the Korean bath I went to in LA. The private changing room was welcome, but the privacy of its lockable door was somewhat compromised by the glass windows; looking out from inside, I suspected the frosted lower half didn’t quite reach the tops of my breasts. The changing rooms were located in the same main room where I first entered and paid my 72 liras, and from there it was only a short shuffle to a towel room and the WCs, and from there through two wooden doors to enter the hamam. I’m used to spas, pools, and bathhouses having more mazelike corridors and distinct areas, but that was it for this one.

Cagaloglu hamam

image from

The hamam itself (where Kate Moss did her photoshoot) is pretty, but also quite basic, in an all-marble, built-for-rich-people, 18th-century kind of way. Essentially, it is a big steam room, with a flat stone platform in the center, and basins all along the sides. When I went there the room was empty except for one woman, her masseuse, and another masseuse who was just getting ready to leave. I know that photo looks marvelous, but imagine yourself standing in that big grey room without your clothes and with no one explaining what to do (and my glasses were fogging up). I soon figured out from watching the masseuses that these “baths” do not include immersion… you simply go to one of the basins/taps and soap, scrub, and throw water on yourself (with the aid of big metal bowls). Huh.

So I cleaned myself, thinking “I could do this more comfortably at home with a washcloth,” and then stood there wondering what else to do. The woman getting scrubbed was lying on the center platform, on top of her red-and-white cloth (it’s called a peştamal, and it was quite light and comfortable, even though it did look like a picnic blanket). I decided to follow suit, laying my peştamal on the warm stone and then reclining on it. I did that for probably 10-20 minutes, and it was very peaceful. After that time, a half-dozen other women entered, in pairs: two locals and four tourists, would be my guess. It wasn’t so quiet after that. I sat up and meditated for a few minutes, and then left. In the towel room I changed my peştamal for a light green towel (a very nice towel, I must say!) and then retired to my changing room and locked the door. It was very nice and cool in there after the steamy hamam, so I stayed there a little while longer, resting.

I was thinking the hamam experience was a bit of a rip-off; I missed both the Icelandic hot tubs and the Korean spa in LA; but in spite of the high price, I did leave feeling relaxed and happy. While I was putting my clothes back on, I saw myself in the little wall mirror in my cubicle, and I looked absolutely glowing. There is much to be said for steam, nakedness, soft fabric, and warm stone! And quiet — I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t come at an empty time. I left the hamam, fended my way past many more touts in front of many more shops, and then recklessly bought a half-kilo of baklava at a little shop near the Sirkeci tram station. (Um, there’s only one piece left now. Erik helped!)

And now… I’m all packed, and if I go to bed right now I will almost get a full night’s sleep before tomorrow’s flight to Paris. So I will do that, first leaving you with this photo of Erik and me at the Aya Sofya. À demain!

Twobugs at Aya Sofya