Exploring Istanbul — Our First Turkish Baths

As I’ve written before, we love our otopark home. It’s a stone’s throw from all the old-town sights, the view is spectacular, and during the day it’s manned by a sweetie-pie security guard (who lets me charge camera batteries in his guard booth), which gives us peace of mind when we’re away. But there’s no getting around the fact that we’re essentially freecamping in a parking lot.

That means we have no electricity, no water and no bathroom.

Now we can work around things by say, charging our laptops at restaurants, buying bottled water, and using the restroom at a nearby park. But more difficult is the issue of showers. We do have a small shower in the rig, but without water, that does us no good. And after a week of tromping around Istanbul in August (in sandals no less), the three of us were getting distressingly ripe and grimy.

That’s when we remembered about the hamams, or Turkish baths. Perfect! A memorable cultural experience that would also solve our basic-hygiene crisis.

After checking out several places around town, we realized there were two ways to go on this.

We could patronize one of the beautiful, historical and famous hamams, the kind written about in centuries-old texts and modern-day guidebooks. These cater to the fine-hotel crowd and charge in euros. They’re very lovely and reek of pampering.

Or we could go the other way. With something dilapidated, old rather than historical, and obscure. These joints cater to people staying at hostels. They charge in lira (TL), and while they share the vaulted ceilings and marble rooms of their upscale cousins, the cracks and mildew indicate they’ve  seen better days.

Can you guess which we picked? You betcha! The cheap kind.

One evening the three of us found a decaying little place in a narrow alley that charged 40 TL for a bath and scrub down. Scout would be free, but I was instructed to tip my masseuse 10 TL to bathe her as well. That seemed reasonable to me.

Here’s what happened next.

1. We paid up front and then went into a private change room, where we took off our clothes and hung them up on pegs. I’m sure a lot of woman debate about leaving underwear on, but I wanted a good cleaning, so I went the full Monty. So did Scout. (It is a bath, after all.) Thin, checkered towels were folded on the bench, so we each put one on, sarong style. Centuries ago patrons wore wooden clogs, but today it’s plastic Crocs. There was an assortment on the floor so we each put on a pair.

2. Our attendants (called kellaks, a man for Mark & a woman for Scout and me) came to get us, so we locked the change room door and went our separate ways, Mark into the men’s section and Scout and I into the ladies’.

3. We were taken into a domed steam room (called a hararet) with a marble floor and three marble basins with hot and cold water spots. Three other women were already in there, sitting on a marble bench that ringed the room. One was a modest 20-year-old with bra straps sticking out from under her tightly wrapped towel, but two naked Japanese ladies had shed their towels and were scrubbing themselves vigorously as they chatted.

4. The attendant motioned for Scout and me to sit down and as we were complying, she ripped away my towel, threw a bowl of hot water on me, and then indicated we should douse ourselves until she returned. Scout LOVED this room and spent her time gleefully prancing around without her towel and pouring water on her head. After about 15 minutes the Japanese ladies were collected by an attendant. The girl who remained didn’t talk much.

5. After about half an hour, a miniscule Turkish lady wearing nothing but worn, black lace panties came to fetch us. Speaking no English, she efficiently ushered us and the other girl into a small room with two marble massage tables. The girl was handed off to another attendant also sporting nothing but black underwear, a smiling grandmother with a fat stomach and breasts like watermelons. Our gal motioned for Scout to sit down and wait (“Baby, sit. Baby, sit”.) Then she grabbed my towel, spread it on the table and motioned for me to lie face down. Let me tell you, modesty has no place in a Turkish bath.

6. The attendant donned abrasive mitts, poured a bowl of water on me, and scrubbed me all over. Hard. Outside of the bikini-wax zone, no part of my personal topography was spared, and it felt great. This tiny Turk, who couldn’t have weighed more than 90 lbs, had the hands of a rugby player and applied astonishing pressure that stopped just shy of pain. I was glad I’d stripped down completely, and wondered how the girl on the other table, who was still wearing her panties (though they’d manage to get her out of her bra), was getting a decent rub down. I cannot describe the amount of grime, dead skin cells and Döner grease that was exfoliated from my skin. She motioned for me to turn over (“Lady, Lady” plus hand gestures), and repeated the process on the other side.

7. The gal motioned for me to sit up and then rinsed me with a few bowlfuls of water.

8. Round II. I was ordered back down onto my front. My abuser masseuse rustled around for a moment, and then suddenly I was enveloped in a silky soap-bubble shower. No wetness really, just bubbly foam everywhere. I couldn’t imagine what she was doing. Scout later reported she’d filled a pillow-case type bag with soap and a little water, shaken it like a martini and then twisted it until all the foam poured out on me. Lovely. Then she massaged me for about ten minutes. It felt great though the soap burned my eyes, and I wished my face was protected from the bubbles.

9. I was flipped and given the same treatment on my front side. Then she sat me up and poured water over me again.

10. Shampoo time. My hair got a quick shampoo, another rinse, and I was done like dinner. The gal said, “Lady you like?” which seemed to be my signal that we were done. She then wrapped me in a dry towel and then laid me out on a marble slab in the adjoining room where I could relax and watch her do Scout.

11. Scout’s bath was thorough but shorter than mine.

12. When Scout was finished, the lady escorted us to the door of the lobby where our cubicle was. Mark wasn’t done yet and he had the key, so while we waited for him, Scout and I sat on an old sofa where we had giggly fun trying to follow a Turkish soap opera on the attendants’ television. Our hamam attendant, now engulfed in a massive terrycloth robe, brought out a silver tray with two small glasses of çay, regular for me and apple for Scout.

So that was our first Turkish bath. Giddy with cleanliness, we spent the rest of the night swept up in the Ramazan madness of the hippdrome, engulfed by the burka-studded crowd, heading in no particular direction. Around 11pm when we finally returned to the otopark, we put out our lawn chairs, shared a few beers (well, obviously not Scout), and watched families celebrate in the park while Archie lunged at all the stray cats, who loved to torment him by sitting just outside of reach of his 15-ft lead.

So, were we right to pick the grody, cheap place? Sure! It wasn’t fancy, but the ladies were very nice and we got what we were after. Cleanliness. And because we saved some lira, we were able to go back again a few days later. The second time, Scout was taken by her own attendant who gave her a nice long scrub while singing Turkish folk songs that echoed sweetly throughout the hamam like lullabies.

I’ll never forget it.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wilma Hatcher September 10, 2011 at 1:57 am

Oh, what a wonderful experience.  Thank you for sharing this with the rest of the world.

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2 Renee September 10, 2011 at 7:06 am

Thanks, Wilma. It was loads of fun.

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3 Tricia September 10, 2011 at 11:51 am

That sounds absolutely amazing!! 🙂

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4 Renee September 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm

I can’t imagine what the fancy ones are like. This one was fun though.

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5 Jack Arney September 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Awesome stuff Renee! Now i want to go.

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6 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Highly recommended. Thanks for checking out the blog. Hey,
we missed you guys in August…

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7 The Ippels September 11, 2011 at 1:15 am

Good for you to go full monty, what the heck eh!  Modesty is so over-rated.  I remember after a nice soaking in an outdoor hot spring in Japan, I unknowingly put my kimono robe on the wrong way.  This old Japanese grammy server walked by, took one look at my robe, shook her head with disgust, ripped open my robe (I had nothing on underneath, she’s full head shorter than me, ie my breasts were at her eye level), tied it up the proper way, and walked away.  I was too shock to move and didn’t really register what hit me…

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8 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm

That’s hysterical. This was the same kind of thing. Towels being ripped off willy nilly. I say!

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9 Amy September 11, 2011 at 4:32 am

What a fun experience!  I am just picturing the old, fat, half naked lady giving you a massage.  What a hoot!

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10 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Actually the fat lady did the other girl, the one who tried to get away with wearing her bikini. Every time I glanced up the girl was getting thwacked by the pendulous watermelon breasts. Was extremely difficult not to stare.

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11 Anonymous September 12, 2011 at 1:05 am

Very funny imaginary here, especially of the “abuser”. I know you paid for the cheaper baths, but how were they inside? Still pretty ornate?

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12 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Thanks, Suzy.

Yes, it was ornate, just in a crumbly way. It had the lovely domed ceilings with little oculi to let in the light, as well as marble everywhere. The finer places probably have fancier lobbies and extra services, but this had a pleasant, homey feel.

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13 Mike-1000fights.com September 12, 2011 at 1:16 am

Love this post!  We had a similar expiriance last year!  

http://1000fights.com/locations/turkey/my-first-bath-turkish/

Cheers!

Mike

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14 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Thanks, Mike!

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15 nod 'n' smile September 12, 2011 at 1:18 am

I loved my Turkish bath experience as well. I was surprisingly comfortable (it doesn’t hurt that I was in a country where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew!) and felt so relaxed afterwards. I did splurge on one of the “fancier” places primarily because I was interested in seeing what the interior would look like, but it doesn’t sound like my treatment was any better than yours. I would have also loved to visit a smaller place for comparison, but unfortunately ran out of time on my trip.

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16 Renee September 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Did you go to one of the places in Istanbul?

Next time I might try a fancy place just to compare. But the fact that this place did the kid for 10 TL is pretty hard to beat.

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17 Turkey's For Life September 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Wow! Amazing! We’ve read many posts about the hamam but NEVER by people who actually *needed* a good scrub down. 🙂 Sounds like you got one too – as well as a good massage/pummelling! I have to admit to being terrified of the masseur but it made a fantastic blog post for your blog! Loved reading this. 🙂
Julia

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18 Renee September 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

LOL, thanks. Yes, when we say we need a Turkish bath, we aren’t kidding around. I have no doubt that future clients will have us to thank for the 20% “living-in-the-otopark” surcharge.

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19 Mark September 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm

It was great! I’m about ready for another one.

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20 Athomeintheworld6 September 23, 2011 at 4:11 am

Brilliant! What’s better than a Turkish bath when you desperately need a good wash? 🙂

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21 Renee September 23, 2011 at 9:50 am

So true, so true. We could all use another one about now.

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22 Renee September 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm

So true, so true. We could all use another one about now.

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23 Faith October 21, 2011 at 3:32 am

This sounds like the bath I went to in Istanbul last week.  The only difference is that the girl really did hurt me and my friend.  She was a stick of a girl who also said, Lady, Lady, whenever we needed to turn over.  After our scrubbing, we returned to the marble room where she told us to , wash, wash.  I was so glad I didn’t go alone as I had first intended.  It would have been really creepy because I was told that you wear your towel and that they don’t touch where the towel is.  Afterwards, it was no problem, but like I said, I was glad I didn’t go alone.

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24 Renee October 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Hi, Faith. Yes, it’s quite a cultural experience, isn’t it.

Your girl sounds like just like ours. Little body, big power, lots of “lady, lady.”

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