Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, physically located on the European continent but dominated culturally by the Middle East. It is rich in architecture and ancient history from mosques and spice markets to Greek mythology-inspired cisterns and Turkish baths hundreds of years old.
My travel buddy Felicia and I had read about a famous Turkish hammam, Cagaloglu Hamami, where Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale had supposedly been scrubbed down. Not to be outdone by her, we had to go. The hammam is an intimate part of Turkish culture involving a steam bath, uber exfoliation, soap scrub, relaxation and socializing.
When we arrived at the centuries old building (built in 1741), we were greeted by large, semi-toothless, middle-aged Turkish women with towels wrapped around their practically naked bodies. We paid $20 each – expensive by local standards – and were escorted to a changing room. While we brought swimsuits, it was clear we were not to wear them.
So we stripped ourselves bare and went into the bath room, distinguished by ancient skylights (peepholes) and marble fixtures.
Each of us was assigned to a station with a small fountain with hot water. We were given bowls to ladle the water over ourselves as we awaited our turns to be scrubbed down. We were also served Turkish apple tea to help keep warm in our naked states.
In the middle of the room was a large, round marble platform. Here is where the magic happened. One by one we were called over to get scrubbed and soaped with a loofah by topless women wearing nothing but a tiny bikini bottom.
“Allo!” a semi-toothless Turkish lady waved to Felicia. Once on the marble platform, Felicia was immediately sliding around like a wet dog as the attendant took off over layer after layer of skin. I laughed so hard I almost spilled my tea.
But then I was summoned over to the marble centerpiece. It was as if I don’t know what hit me, but unfortunately I did … the large boob of the semi-toothless lady slapped me on the back side of my head over and over until I could barely see as she scrubbed layer and layer of “dirt” off my skin. Then Lemon Fresh Joy was used to wash my face and hair. Suds of soap stung my eyes as I was trying to recover from the boob beating. Then came my salvation: buckets of water were dumped over my head and thrown at me to get rid of the soap. Felicia was now laughing at me.
After been beaten, shaken and stirred, we proceeded to get dressed. On our way out, our attendants, err, attackers – now donning towels again and smoking cigarettes – demanded tips. We were happy to oblige, thankful to be making it out of there unscathed. Where was Florence when we needed her!
As we walked into the night air, our skin tingled with raw cleanliness. Never had we been so thoroughly (or simply roughly) exfoliated. This authentic Turkish bath could surely turn anyone into a nightingale, singing “Hallelujah” for surviving.