By Mary Ellen Monahan
6:00 PM EDT, November 1, 2013
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Inside the Cagaloglu Hamami, my masseuse, a short, paunchy woman of about 50, sings as she exfoliates me from head to toe with a rough mitt. The sweet melody contrasts with the gruff scrub job.
Every few minutes, she douses me with a pail of warm water and off goes another layer of skin and, increasingly, my cares. At one point, she shows me the mitt as if for emphasis. I make a mental note to tip more.
A slap on the leg signals me to turn over. I manage to flop onto my stomach, and she begins lathering me all over with soap — first hoisting one arm, then another. As I lie there, the blanket of bubbles effervesces all over my body. A vigorous full-body massage follows. Her thumbs delight in exploring a knot in my left shoulder.
"Is good?" she asks afterward. She then leads me to a marble fountain, where I sit for a sublime shampoo and head massage. Suds cover my eyes and mouth, froth about my nostrils and block my ears.
"You look like a snowman!" says my friend Frances Thomas. "I wish I had a camera!"
For the big finish, my masseuse dumps cold water on my head and cackles as I squeal.
"Finish!" she announces with a toothy grin.
The Turkish hamam, descendant of the baths of ancient Rome and Byzantium, is the site of one of the world's great bathing rituals — a place not just to get clean (Islam, like many religions, links physical and spiritual purity) but also to recharge and relax, alone or with friends.
Once upon a time, the Ottoman Empire's thousands of hamams marked important ceremonies such as births and weddings. These days, it's more of a social ritual than a necessity with the spread of indoor plumbing in the last century.
Although several new luxury hamams such as the Kilic Ali Pasa and Ayasofya have opened here with prices to match the sparkling interiors, my fantasy of old Istanbul meant just that. I didn't need digital lockers or minimalist-chic interiors. Nor did I mind a whiff of mustiness or a little old-school attitude.
One thing was certain: After a couple of days, Istanbul's vibrant entrepreneurial spirit — its carpet touts, spice merchants, tea caddies and tourist mobs — had left me frazzled and seeking restoration. I wondered, how did local women in this city of more than 13 million unveil and unwind away from husbands and family?
Frances, a middle-aged New Zealander I met during my stay, was curious too. And so off we went to the Cagaloglu (JAH-la-loo) Hamami one mild weeknight in December.
As we enter, an Italian woman is quizzing the receptionist about what's involved. I also dither for a moment while recalling a friend's experience 10 years earlier ("strange and uncomfortable"). But Cameron Diaz, John Travolta and Florence Nightingale have enjoyed themselves here, according to the photos adorning the walls. As if by cosmic signal, a quartet of rosy-cheeked Germans saunter out of the women's entrance (the sexes are segregated) and exhort us: "You must do it!"
We pay about $50 each for an exfoliation and soap massage while scanning the spacious main atrium, where wooden balconies are decorated with drying towels.
We're shown to the women's entry hall and the individual changing cubicles, each of which contains a bed and traditional wooden sandals. When I ask for a larger size, an attendant tosses me a pair more appropriate for Bigfoot, in which I stumble along with Frances to the spacious hararet, or hot room.
Inside, the cerulean sky peeks through tiny windows in the domed ceiling as daylight gives way to dusk. It feels like a shrine to bodily purity interrupted occasionally by the attendants' shouts or humming, which echo along the arched recesses. Captivating scents waft about — jasmine, eucalyptus, rosemary, lemon and yes — a hint of mildew here and there.
Our plump masseuses wear black bikini bottoms and lead us to a large marble pedestal around which 10 nude bodies of all shapes and ages lie on cotton cloths. We relax and sweat in the warm, moist air, useful for releasing toxins and promoting a sense of well-being.
In the background, faucets trickle, employees slosh water from metal pans to clean patrons or surfaces and soft European voices whisper. (France is well represented. Evidently, French women don't get fat. Note to self: Lay off the pistachio baklava.)
The attendants occasionally cluck at one another, and when I'm not drifting into a blissful stupor, I wonder what they're saying. ("Like donkeys, some of these tourists!")
After about 15 minutes, my masseuse returns and leads me by the hand to a less-crowded area along the pedestal's edge, where she begins to work her magic.
After the massages, Frances and I spend about an hour moving between warm and cool rooms and just chilling out. Eventually, we shuffle reluctantly toward the exit, lost in reverie.
"Lady!" one attendant after another barks, pointing us here or there. "Towel!" one says, wrapping me up and pushing me toward the changing area, where we find several employees in green robes lounging like big bored cats, staring at their mobile phones. We change, tip our masseuses and move on to the open-air courtyard café for apple tea.
A thirtysomething San Franciscan says to me, "It's a bit like a factory. But perfect after you've spent all day in the Grand Bazaar," Istanbul's colorful, sprawling market just steps from here.
"But it's not very hot," a Swedish student chimes in. "You know, we invented the sauna, and it's much different than this."
Sure, the temperature felt a little wimpy compared with the Scandinavian sauna, which is hot almost to the point of masochism. But as we chat, the fireplace crackles, stars twinkle overhead and I feel like part of Sultan Mahmud I's harem. (His wife commissioned this, the last hamam built during the Ottoman Empire, in 1741.)
Soon enough, we're wandering the clogged sidewalks of Sultanahmet, the old town, where scents of eggplant, tomato and grilled meats waft in the air. But this time, the peddlers' choruses of "Yes, hello!" "This way..." "Lady, come look at my rugs... ceramics... jewelry... grilled lamb," wash over us like so many suds.
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