What does your imagination conjure if you think, “Turkish bath”? Is it something like this:
Or like this?:
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but was recommended a visit by a half-Turkish friend who said that a trip to the historic Cemberlitas hammam enchanted her two young daughters and is a highlight that they still talk about. I’ve always wondered what a hammam experience would be like, and so did Hattie, so we coaxed our boys into joining, promising they wouldn’t get pummeled by fat, hairy Turkish men (and even if they did, it’d be something fun to write home about).
Opting for the bath and scrub (no oil massage), which runs a pretty pricey 50 Euros (but, you know… it’s a must-do), Hattie and I are given traditional linen cloths and yellow plastic tokens indicating our “ticket”. We wave farewell to our boys and head to the ladies’ hammam section…. then I get a bit awkward, not sure what the traditional etiquette is versus what the modern standards are. i’m talking about the nakey-factor. Luckily Hattie has done some preliminary research and seen people advising that at hammams in Turkey, toplessness is the norm (in fact, shamefully wearing a bikini or bra top is far more awkward and a blaring indication of your touristness). We get into changing rooms, pull on the black cotton briefs provided and wrap the linen cloth around our bodies — boobies concealed.
The bath chamber is a beautiful domed room with cut-out circular spotlights above that let the sun’s rays twinkle in like starlight. A heated marble slab in the middle of the room, right under the dome, is there for you to lie on and there are little antechambers on the sides where you fill a rustic brass bowl with hot and cold water, mixed to your liking, from antique taps that drip clean water into a marble sink…. then I’m not sure what to do. The past year has seen me become very body-confident; having a boyfriend of more than one year has helped, as well as maturing into near-total acceptance of my non-existent breasts. Plus, being a chef has whittled my waistline — always been a troubling spot for me Before I can mull over this for long, Hattie is topless and going about her business at the sink. We’ve been friends for eight years now — since age 14 — and this is the first time, in all our sisterly sharing of rooms and clothes, that I’ve seen her boobs. I realise we’ve both grown up and it’s not a big deal anymore- not at all – and off my towel comes. Free! I felt free and odd and slightly hippie-ish, and relaxed.
We bask on the marble slab while the damp heat of the room steams our bodies, in preparation for a thorough scrub of our scaly winter skin. Someone is getting scrubbed by a grumpy Turkish woman with the most enormous breasts, ever, which kind of get in the way of the whole operation. Luckily I don’t get her, but a rather nice lady who picks up my arms to scrub over and around me. It was not a pretty sight, the amount of old skin sloughed off of me. I felt like I was being born again, the old rubbed off and the newness of babyhood, being lathered up in a mountain of soapy bubbles and having water poured over my head.
So the experience was more like picture A, above… although be warned, it’s not exactly a princess-pampering experience. The ladies squawk at each other and at you a bit, and you sometimes feel like you’re being processed like a piece of meat as they order you around to move here, do this, DON’T do that — like me, unfortunate ignorant fool that I am, as my attendant moved on to Hattie and caught me giving myself a second scrub-off. I don’t know if I was dirtying the area or if I insulted her scrubbing skills, but she marched over, angrily finished me off and barked at me to get into the jacuzzi.
A few minutes more of basking later, we thought the boys might be done so went to get changed. In fact you can stay at a hammam for as long as you like — the rate you pay is per day! When we got out, after slathering lotion all over our squeaky, shiny new skin, we met the boys at the co-ed rooftop terrace where they had been soaking up the Mediterranean rays and sipping freshly pressed, ruby-red pomegranate juice. “Wow, feels like we’re in Greece!” I sighed. “Nooo…” Will cooed, “feels like we’re in TURKEY!”
On to the Archaelogical Museum, where the highlights were magnificent B.C.-era sarcophagi discovered in the 19th century; and a third-century B.C. clay figure with moveable arms (strung through the body with a small cord — hey, the world’d first Barbie doll!
Topkapi Palace was astoundingly beautiful. within the palace walls were many different rooms, ceremonial and residential, like the greeting room for foreign ambassadors — which was made to look more European — and a quiet, beautifully tiled library with low-lying, cushion covered bench. The tilework is dazzling. We fantasized about decking out a future home with these Iznik tiles, Will suggesting that a perfect place would be a bathroom or kitchen…. but I found that a bit insulting, and out of place given that these tiles weren’t restricted to small rooms or niche corners, but generously and magnificently spread from floor to ceiling, corner to corner. The harem was itself another section, and which was cheekily priced as an extra entrance fee, but well worth seeing for the eunuchs’ chambers and the Queen Mother’s room, all decorated as a half-and-half mix of Versailles and a Sultan’s palace.
Istanbul Modern was next. Contemporary art is already a prickly subject for me, what with bogus-looking art and pretty fishy pretenses of meaning in the absurd… you know, like sharks in formaldehyde tanks. That didn’t make it unenjoyable, though. We didn’t get the point of one installation, where you pass into a pitch-black room through a thick, 3-foot expanse of feather boa curtains. Suddenly a big globe of the earth lights up, looking like it’s suspended in the room and you’re floating in space…. then an eery and comical choir of angels comes on the speakers while the globe spins. Is it a commentary on the insignificance of humanity relative to the universe and eternity? I don’t know, but it was funny…
For dinner, we soldiered on to the Asian side. Kadikoy is apparently where it’s at, and we had to visit Ciya Sofrasi, an authentic Turkish restaurant featured on Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast. It’s known for serving daily specials. Hattie the vegetarian loved it, as there was far more variety in the range of vegetable stews and dishes than the standard, meat-centric kebabs elsewhere. A very unusual highlight was a warm soup of yogurt, mint and lamb. It was tangy, creamy, fresh and just a bit lamby… delicious.
You can imagine how shattered we were… so we headed back to “our” side of the Bosphorus, hatching up tomorrow morning’s plan — to meet Hattie up at THE baklava place, also featured on Ottolenghi, which Hattie had been visiting every day since arrival as it’s located conveniently near her hotel. That would mean a 7am wake-up time to get dressed and meet by 8am. Just another packed day in our whirlwind tour…
Tomorrow: BAKLAVA and vertigo on the tower…