This post is about our unique experience at a Hamam. The ultimate Turkish experience (discounting the Grand Bazaar stress, being awoken at 5am every single morning by the call to prayer, and our DISASTROUS DINNER), there was no way we could visit Istanbul and not have a Turkish bath.
Turkey. The country, not the bird. One of my dearest friends and I decided to extend a work trip into a mini girls’ holiday – what could be more fun than two travel-loving women spending a few days in Istanbul. Described as a city where East meets West, Asia meets Europe, we couldn’t resist.
Cemberlitas Hamam. See the photo? A little bit of hanging about wearing beautiful Turkish towels, chatting with one another whilst relaxing in the steamy, soothing vapours – perhaps with a glass of vino or such in hand; maybe even some music in the background.
My aunt had told me her experience had been fantastic. I didn’t ask for details. I mean, if a girlfriend told you she’d loved her facial, would you ask for specifics? Exactly.
Ms Hutchinson and I had had our share of facials and massages over the years. We were well-travelled women, not easily shocked nor daunted. This Turkish bath day was going to be a brilliant way of ending our otherwise disastrous mini-holiday.
You go inside, you pay and choose your ‘programme’. As it was our penultimate day, we decided to go wild and have the hamam with luxury massage at the end. We were already feeling refreshed and all exotic. In our lockers was a little plastic package containing a pair of black knickers and a robe with slippers. We put them on and off we trotted to the most beautiful bathroom we’d ever seen. The photo doesn’t lie here. It really was stunning.
A massive slab of marble lay in the centre of the high-ceilinged and mosque-like room. It was a very large circular slab, if you like, and it was heated. Bliss. Instructed to sit on the marble and remove our robes, we sat there quietly and expectantly. It was a bit awkward, topless and in a pair of ‘provided’ black knickers. At this point, the minds started to wonder “Do they dry clean these knickers? Are they in fact, REUSABLE? How many others have worn this exact pair?” Before one had time to process the thinking, our Ladies arrived.
Two women in their mid-sixties with very capable-looking hands. No smiles, no greetings, just straight to business. Perfect. Now, Ms Hutchinson and I are people that like a proper massage, not the wimpy Swedish type. We like to feel like we’ve been pummelled a little bit.
My Lady was a bit delayed in starting, so I had the benefit of seeing what my friend had to endure first, and had about 45 seconds to prepare myself. Those became the most vital 45 seconds of my life.
Plastic bucket full of soapy water. Pillow case. Really? No loofah or essential oils? Miss H’s lady said something in a low voice, lifted up the bucket, shook it a bit then WHAM. No warning, no hint. Just a bucketful of water dumped right over my friend’s entire body, head first. Hilarious! Out came the rag from inside her t-shirt and she began scrubbing Ms Hutchinson, going hell for leather. I got the same treatment seconds later, but I knew what to expect, so had my mouth and eyes shut when my water-dumping happened.
When I say hell for leather, I’m not exaggerating. The ladies stripped off their black t-shirts and proceeded with the bathing ritual in just their black lace bras and black lace knickers. Surreal. Large, buss pass-aged women, with all their bits jiggling 2 inches from one’s face, furiously scrubbing away at their speechless victims. No English was spoken, so there was an awful lot of pushing, poking and grabbing to get us into the correct positions.
At one point, in her frustration at my lack of understanding the slaps on my left upper arm, my Lady grabbed my ankle and spun me around. Holy cow.
Behind us, we saw one young American girl in her full-on Speedo swimming costume, arguing with her Lady about keeping her swimsuit on. There was no way she was going to don a pair of potentially previously-used knickers and no way on earth was she going to allow anyone to see her boobs. She kept her suit on and all we could hear was the snapping, twanging noises of her swimsuit being elastic-banded against her poor skin. No mercy shown to the prudish American.
The buckets were refilled, giving us time to whisper back and forth “What the effing eff is going on?” “I’m BLIND.” “I’m drowning.” “She took that rag to scrub me with out of her BRA, HER BRA!” “My knickers almost flew off, she threw that water at me so hard.” “This is not very relaxing.” “Oh fuck, they’re coming back.”
The second time around comprised even more soap suds in the buckets. The pillow cases were dunked inside and filled up with millions of bubbles. Expecting the pillowcase to be emptied over our heads, we both closed our eyes…and then BAM. No, they were not emptied over our heads. Our heads were smacked with them. No shame whatsoever. At this point, one could only laugh. Silently. Never in our lives did we imagine being whacked around the head with a pillowcase filled with soapy bubbles. We were paying good money for this, too.
Things started to slow down. The Ladies became a bit more gentle (guilt, we assumed) and would even make eye contact before slapping us on the arm or thigh to move around. Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security.
We were led to individual pools. Beautiful they were, see photo. It was over, at last, we could relax in the pool and pretend none of that happened. Gingerly stepping into the pool, desperately trying to regain some element of dignity, Ms Hutchinson and I looked at one another, laughed in relief – and then got shoved face first into the water. Yet again, another noseful of water. I almost wept. “REFRESH GOOD, GET OUT”. I wasn’t sure if my Lady wanted me to exit the pool or the hamam. When she instructed me to return to the marble slab, I think a small part of me died.
I climbed out of the pool, holding onto my severely stretched-out and now beyond saggy knickers, and shuffled back to the slab of indignity. I looked at my friend. Her eyes were more bloodshot than if she’d gone to town on 5 bottles of vodka the night before. Soap in the eyes does that.
The final ten minutes on the slab couldn’t be all bad. What else could they throw at us? We’d suffered it all. Water over the head, bubbles in the mouth, eyes so sore from all the water that we were almost blind, repositioned by our ankles and boobs.
Ms H and I really love to gab. A lot. We tire other people out with our talking, hand gesturing, loud histrionics and general non-stop yakking. In other words, we rarely have our mouths shut for long. This experience however, we’d learned to keep our gobs closed tight. Once things had come to a close, the Ladies were cleaning up, wringing out the pillowcases into the buckets…it was finally time for us to recommence the talking. I swear to god, Ms Hutchinson’s Lady was just waiting…just waiting until she had her mouth wide open, face turned towards me, mid-sentence….then came a full bucket’s worth of soapy, cold water SMACK BANG CENTRE in my dearest friend’s face. Thrown from around 1 foot distance, for maximum velocity and impact, I suspect — Ms Hutchinson almost slid backwards off the slab. It was truly amazing that she didn’t suffer whiplash. Cry with laughter? Holy mother of soap, I almost died. Before my Lady had time to take aim at me, I was off the slab, slipping and sliding as fast as I could out of there towards the massage room.
When we got back to the US, we asked our friends for the details about their hamam experiences. Expecting them to admit the brutal scrubbing and water torture with us now inner circle co-victims, we were rather taken aback when all of them said they’d had a wonderful, relaxing experience.
Either Ms Hutchinson and I had one of our typical “It only happens to us” experiences, or our friends are sadists.
The post-bath massages were amazing though.