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The Gilded Serpent Presents...
Of Hamams and Bathing
by Justine Merrill

Before we went to Turkey, I was inspired by Kayla’s articles on The Gilded Serpent to try the Hamams (Turkish Baths) and to seek out new and enticing bathing experiences in Turkey. Believing that hot water in copious amounts is one of the key ingredients in the advance of civilization, I knew Turkey would hold some unexpected delights.

After three days of touring Istanbul, Christina and I were tired and bone weary. Weary of the crowds, the vendors, the sights - simply just tired of travel.

Getting to Istanbul had taken us two days of flying from the West Coast, and it all caught up with us at last. Instead of just taking a much needed nap, Christina and I decided to go to the famous Hamam Cemberlitas, not far from our hotel. Having made this post-lunch decision on impulse, we lacked all bathing supplies, so I bought a new razor from a peddler, and in we went.

Hamams can be a bit spendy when you are on a budget - a cost of 25 to 35 million Turkish liras is not uncommon. (about 15 American dollars).  I could buy three people a nice dinner for that price, so it hurt to hand over fifty million lira for a bath.  I got over it immediately when I walked inside the incredible marble room where major bathing has happened since 1584.

The round room had a slab of hot marble in the middle to soak on and basins of marble on the side of the room with hot running water to bathe in. The entire room was as hot and steamy as a sauna, with the marble slippery to the tread.  We were grateful that bathing slippers were provided for the experience.

Traditional Turkish bathing rituals are a little complex, but I kept reminding myself: how many mistakes can you make when you are naked?

The answer: quite a few. Islamic bath rituals are more complex than the average sports club locker room routines.

Cemberlitas is a tourist destination, so the bath attendants are very forgiving of nudity mistakes. Now, I don’t have lot of nudity taboos after twenty years of nursing, and though modesty has its place, I don’t think that place is in the bathhouse. Most of the women were naked Europeans and Aussies, and obviously used to group locker rooms. The Koreans looked a bit shocked at the display of so much naked flesh. Later, in a Hamam in Selcuk, we had a few tough moments about nudity. The bath attendants in every situation wore swimming suit bottoms, or very pretty panties, which should have been a hint: Wear pretty nylon panties.

After doing a private wash and shave at a basin, I lay down on the hot marble and watched the lights play down from the ceiling across the hazy room, while voices around me chatted in English, Dutch and Korean. I watched the bath procedure through half-open eyes, so I would know what to expect.

The bath attendants work hard, scrubbing each person with a brillo pad-like loofah. Big pillow cases of bubbles are banged over every bather, followed by rinsing and massaging. Then the attendant escorts the bather to a basin and scrubs her hair like she has never washed it in her entire life!

The attendants giggle while dumping scalding hot water on the screaming, howling clients.

Blissful on the hot marble, I snoozed through the first half of my first Hamam experience, but when it came my turn to be scrubbed, I discovered I had a problem. After twenty years of giving baths, it was very hard to relax and get a bath. I had to force myself to lie still and relax.

A large, strong, naked woman in flowered pink panties handled, scrubbed and ordered me around like I was a child of slow understanding. The feeling of helplessness increased as the bubbles smothered my face and mouth on the marble table while the attendants chattered over my head.

Having all the travel scraped off felt wonderful, and when my attendant saw fresh razor marks on my legs, she became quite adamant about a total wax job. She was thrilled at having someone that shaved, as lots of the Europeans don’t. By the time she finished talking, everyone in the bathhouse knew that I had done a poor job of shaving and needed a proper wax job, including a bikini wax. I was too tired at the time and declined, but I will have that experience on my next trip.

Christina received her bath from a singing attendant in purple underwear; the woman sang songs while making bags of bubbles, also nearly drowning Christina in soap. Her voice rang un-self consciously and harmoniously in the acoustically perfect dome. Christina really howled inharmoniously when the hot rinse water was dumped on her.

The bath, rest, wash, sleep cycle lasted about an hour and a half. Afterwards I wished I had brought my toothbrush for a quiet brush for the total clean experience.

We became quite addicted to the bath /abuse cycle, as it really removed travel grime and worries, so we sought out Hamams for women wherever we could fit in a few hours of downtime on our busy trip.

Many tourist hamams are now for the mixed sexes, which is not as much fun as hanging out with singing/screaming women all afternoon.

Later in our trip we found a wonderful small women’s bath in the lovely port city of Bodrum, right across from the bus station. The building was smaller, cozier, than Cemberlitas. The water was twice as hot, and the attendants had few clients. I had an incredible professional massage after my bath. I have had therapeutic massage done for my hip for several years and am quite the massage connoisseur.

Self-taught amateurs do most massages in Turkey, and they are ok - however, this was a great four-star massage.

After my hot bath, I was taken to a cool upstairs room with windows draped with white linens and the pleasant ocean breeze blowing in across the table. I was right next to the attendants’ rest area, and they walked in and out in their underwear or bathing suits and pink flip-flops, observing and making comments in Turkish. I was naked, without the customary drape; my therapist was also naked except for the inevitable cute panties and flip-flops. Instead of new age music, Turkish pop played fairly loudly.

The massage was hard, and just what I needed after riding too many buses for too many hours. After the massage I just lay on the table, sipping water and talking with the girls. What an incredible afternoon!

Below are Justine’s incomplete rules to making less of a fool of yourself while naked in Turkey:

  • Wear pretty nylon panties.
  • Carry travel-sized soap and shampoo.
  • Bring your razor.   Put it with the soap and shampoo in a small plastic bag.
  • Never put anything in the washing basins but your dipping bowl. No soap, razor,  washcloth or anything. The basin needs to stay perfectly clean. Never use another person’s basin unless invited.
  • Do not take a single step without your bath slippers on.
  • Always tip the bath attendants at least 5 million lira per person.
  • Always have a massage. (personal rule)
  • Bring a bottle of water to drink.

Stay tuned for our other wonderful adventures in Turkey; “Mud Baths in the Rain”, the alternate Pammukale experience - but first we will ” Shop till you drop In Istanbul”.

From  the Merrill Adventures of Turkey.

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