The idea of going to a Hamam, a Turkish Bath, has always intrigued me. When I saw that the Hotel Barut Arum in Side on the South coast of Turkey, where my husband and I spent our hols in October, had a beauty spa on the premises, I decided to give it a go. The Viola Spa offers free use of the Hamam, everything else, applications and treatments, cost extra. I opted for the ‘Reduced Autumn Offer’, i.e., the Hamam, followed by peeling, a foam bath and a massage (35 Turkish Lira = ~ 23 $).
A Hamam in a hotel may not be the real thing, not like one in central Anatolia but adapted to the tastes of the guests from mainly central Europe, but I assume that most tourists visiting Turkey don’t go there as backpackers eager to explore hitherto untrodden paths but that they stay in hotels on the coast many of which have a Hamam. I want to tell you what I encountered there so that you know what to expect should you ever feel like trying one. Btw, the real ones may not be to everybody’s liking, our neighbour who is from central Anatolia told me that she doesn’t like the one in her home town because it stinks. So there.
I made an appointment but forgot to ask if I had to bring anything. When I arrived the young man at the counter asked me if I had a swimsuit with me, I declined and asked if I should have brought one and what for, but he only said, "Never mind." He sent me to a cabin to undress and wrap a pestemal (pronounced: peshtemal), a kind of towel, round my naked body, I put my things into a locker and then he led me to a room, opened the door and shoved me in telling me to go to the wash basins first and then lie down on the stone in the middle, five minutes on my back and five minutes on my belly.
The hot, dry air took my breath away, later I learnt that there are 45°C in a Hamam (113°F), maybe not advisable for people with heart trouble. The room was octagonal, the walls covered with stone looking like marble, a low stone bench fixed to the walls, interrupted by six wash basins. I learnt later that I should have begun at the wash basins pouring warm water with a bowl over my body but as I had washed only a short time before and nobody was there to instruct me in the ritual, I didn’t. I put my towel away and lay down on the large octagonal, knee-high stone in the middle which has room for several people.
It didn’t take long and I started to perspire, big beads dropped onto the stone, the idea is to clean the pores this way. After a while when I already felt that I was dissolving into a liquid state, the door opened and an elderly man wrapped in a towel came in. Blimey, nobody had told me that it was a mixed sex affair! Obviously he was as shocked as I was, he kept sitting beside a wash basin and didn’t move, we ignored each other until I was called out by Karina, my (Russian) masseuse.
She led me to a small room, took away my towel and poured litre after litre of very warm water with a bowl over my body (in a Hamam you don’t have the change between hot and cold like in the Finnish sauna). Then she took a kese, a rough mitt for massage, and scrubbed my whole body energetically, that was the peeling part, afterwards bowls of warm water again.
Next I was covered in mountains of foam made of olive oil, no idea how that is produced, which was rubbed lightly into my body. The next and final step should have been the massage, but Karina disappeared and came back with a German speaking woman, obviously the boss of Viola Spa, she said that Karina had suggested I took an algae body pack which would do me no end of good but cost 50 Euro (71,50 $) extra. 50 Euro is not peanuts but I thought, why not, I’m not in a Hamam and beauty spa every day and don’t usually spend much money on me and agreed. I was led into another room, Karina smeared the algae paste onto my body and wrapped me into a plastic cover. I didn’t like this procedure very much and insisted that my lower arms and hands and my throat were not covered. While I was lying there, my body became warmer and warmer, not unbearably so, though.
Then I had to take a shower to get the paste off my body, was wrapped into warm towels and let to a comfy deckchair. I got a glass of water and was told to relax. I’m surprised that I didn’t fall asleep in the dark room and the low music playing in the background.
At last came the massage from the soles of my feet to the palms of my hands, bliss! I could sleep wonderfully that night.
All in all I spent 2 ½ hours in the Hamam, when I left, I felt like new! When I was fully dressed again, I asked if I could go back to the Hamam and take a photo of the room from the door in case it was empty. It wasn’t, though, two young women were lying on the central stone clad in bikinis. Blimey again, so one doesn’t have to be naked in there!
The Hamams have always played an important role in the cultures of the Middle East, they were first annexes to mosques but later became independent buildings. They served not only as places where people could clean themselves but also, perhaps even more so, as places of social gathering, especially for women who were not allowed to leave their houses without male company; in the Hamams they could meet other women and chat away the time. The number of Hamams in Turkey is dwindling, though, the reasons are the improved sanitary situation of the Turkish houses and also that women can meet each other more now than in days gone by.