After my experience years ago in a bath in Budapest (mentioned briefly here from back in the day) and after reading Adventurous Kate’s hilarious blog entry about her time at a Turkish hamam, I had to try it out.

Ready for my first Turkish bath! Note the sweet wooden footwear.

A traditional Turkish bath consists of a sauna/steam, an exfoliation and a soapy bath, all while lying down on a marble slab in the middle of a room. Other services available depend on the hamam, but you can usually get an oil massage and, on the ladies’ side, sometimes waxing or other spa treatments. We (a Turkish friend and I) opted for the basic steam/scrub/bath option, which sort of includes a mini-massage when you’re being soaped up, but not really.

The hamam we went to did a great job with online marketing, making it look like the masseuses were all these toned, attractive folk and that people regularly play music and eat while in the bath house. My friend had also heard that it was a hamam where people like John Travolta would rent out the whole thing; it was famous. That wasn’t quite the experience we had…

We walked in to the ladies’ entrance–hamams are segregated by gender–and there was a room with changing stalls that had windows (so no real privacy existed in the place, period). Prices were listed in Turkish Lire, which was probably a better sign than some of the hamams that straight up list them in euro and know the clientele they’re working with are all foreigners. Prices, though, were a bit steep (85 Lire–$47– for a basic service).

The women who were running the place were older, probably in their 60s, and were basically just wearing underwear. Gravity had definitely worked its natural magic and the rather well endowed women were completely blase about hanging out at work half-naked. Cool.

We were shown to a changing room that we shared, and were given these wooden sandal things that were more an accident waiting to happen than any kind of proper footwear, since they didn’t fit and the wood was heavy. It was easier to slide along the floor like a skier than pick up my feet and walk, so I kind of did that until we got into the bathhouse part, and then stopped using the shoes altogether.

We changed into our towels, and walked into the steam room. The room itself had high ceilings and it only took about 10 minutes for us to break a healthy sweat. The point of the steam part is to open your pores and get the sweat going, so that when you get exfoliated, more of the grime and gunk that has built up in your skin will come out.

I think even 5 years ago, I would have been a lot more uncomfortable with all the nudity in the bathhouse; it’s optional whether you want to keep your bikini on or go the way the Lord made ya. Maybe it’s maturity, or confidence, or just the fact that women of all ages and races and shapes were willing to let it all hang out, but I was totally unfazed by the skin, and I rolled how most of the other chicas in the place were rolling, too. And I’m glad about that.

Back to the bath. My friend and I chatted for awhile, getting in some valuable girl talk time that, although I love him to death, Boris cannot provide. Maybe after about 20 minutes, the scrubber lady (kecesi) summoned me to the block. See, in the middle of the room, which on all sides has water basins for washing, there is a big block of marble where the massage/scrub takes place. About 4 women could fit on this block, one on each side.

She gestured for me to start lying face down, and donned a special exfoliating mitten thing. She proceeded to scrub every part of me, front and back, with the rough mitten (called a kese) until there were huge, grody rolls of dead skin all over the place. In my defense, I’ve never had a full body skin exfoliation done, so there was a lot of grit to get rid of.

My friend told me as I was lying there, “You should have her do your face, too!” and instructed the woman to do so in Turkish. I was compliant, although I have to say that I tried really hard not to laugh when she gave me no warning and clobbered my face with her huge, mitten-covered hand to scrub it.

I was sat up and got scrubbed some more, then led to one of the water basins and doused with water to get off all the dead skin that had accumulated during the exfoliation.

Next came the soaping. Again, face down on the marble, but this time she had a soapy bag that got frothed up and lathered all over. Its aroma was sweet without being overpowering, and we definitely smelled nice afterwards.

Again, I had no notice when not only the mitten-covered hand but a soap-lathered one descended onto my tiny face. In that moment, and later, too, when she rinsed it with a bucket of water, I was grateful for the childhood games of “Let’s Hold Our Breath As We Pass By The Cemetery,” because it must have built up my lung capacity for moments like these in a Turkish bath when my keseci is possibly trying to drown me. Who knew.

Soaping over, I was again rinsed at the water tubs and told I was all done. I felt cleaner, for sure. We were given new towels to dry off as we exited. Somewhere on the price board it had said there were free teas and coffees, but we were ready for dinner and didn’t take advantage of it.

Overall, I’m really glad I went. There are upsides and downsides to going to more touristed hamams. One upside is that the staff are used to dealing with tourists who have no idea what the frack is going on, and if I hadn’t had my Turkish friend with me I would have been a lot more intimidated to do it alone.

A huge downside is just price; the really nice places, ones that actually have nice architecture to admire, are even more expensive than where we were, meaning you’d pay maybe 100 TL for what we got. We were told about another hamam where they give you a bag of your own stuff–soap, sandals, shampoo–but that place was 70 euro, not even in lire.

In 2008, Boris went to a hamam in the countryside. He paid something like 10 TL for all of what we got and a massage, and has a pretty funny story to tell about the whole experience (ask him sometime, he’ll surely share with you), but did say that the hamam was pretty dingy.

I’m still unsure as to how many Turks really frequent these places. Obviously the ones in Sultanahmet are mostly for tourists, but I’ve heard mixed things.

Have you ever been to a hamam, or another kind of bath house? What did you think?