A Hammam is not just a scrub and a rub. This is a true Turkish delight

Think Turkey and probably the first few free associations that come to mind are sweet and chewy Turkish delight, the film Midnight Express and Turkish baths. Sure there are the monumental Blue Mosque, the exquisite Hagia Sophia, the fragrant Spice Market, the sales pitch at the Covered Bazaar always with the offer of hot apple tea. But after arriving in Istanbul, I opted for the Hammam, the traditional baths which I was sure would help with my jet lag.

Turkish Baths date back to the early Ottoman period. It played an important role in the social life but seems to have lost its social role and attraction status for the locals these days as it has become a traveller’s adventure.

Having been to a few others scrubs and rubs in times past, each technique and the facilities have differed except for the centrally placed raised marble platform (Navel stone), although they too have varied in size and shape. So I was keen to experience this highly acclaimed Hammam which one of my colleagues had researched before she left New York City.

I was a willing companion as we headed off through the traffic filled streets, passing vendors with wagons filled with small mountains of fresh strawberries and carts of smits, the sesame topped pretzel which is as much a must as an Hammam.

The outside didn’t live up to any of the monumental buildings in this exquisite historic city strategically situated between East and West. After paying the admission of 20 Lira (about $18 CDN) to the grumpy cashier, we were shown to a table and seated in a lobby-like area, then served some tea.

Shortly afterwards, with a wave of an attendant’s hand, we followed her down a dark hallway to a large changing room where women were in various stages of dress and undress. Filled to capacity and chattering in German, French, English, Australian but no Turkish, I realized that this was certainly a tourist Hammam.

Off to a smaller locker space since we were happily out of luck in the larger quarters, the ‘leader’ pantomimed to take off everything and wrap a towel around us. Of course, she motioned that I could wear my bathing suit when I held it up.

Ready to enter, instead of a steamy room it was as unclouded as a sunny day. I found it was somewhat amusing as this completely marble room filled with various niches containing fountain-like sinks, had an extremely large marble platform filled with motionless, nude women facing various directions either on their back or stomach and suddenly I thought this could be a morgue.

My mind dull, I took the only small spot left on this podium. Since the masseuses didn’t speak any English, their way of communication was by slapping the shoulder, thigh or buttock and pointing. Slap, and she motioned that I stretch out. With someone’s feet in my hair, I did what I was told by a woman who could have been Eva Braun’s relative. Slap, and the mime suggested I roll down my maillot to my waist which I did. I wasn’t about to argue with large woman whose own outfit was a sheer stretched to capacity bra and panties about to expose her ‘privates’.

As I waited for the steam to open my pores on the red and white towel which I was given, she tossed a package at me which held the rough mitt which, with her hefty hand, would soon find every dead cell on my body, but not before she again, (slap) insisting that the bathing suit must go and go it went onto the very wet slippery marble floor. Essa, I managed to find out her name, started to ‘attack’ every extremity, back, stomach and torso. What was I thinking when I decided to come. All I wanted was some relaxation. Slap, onto the back. Slap, move sideways, more scrubbing, slap onto the stomach, rub, slap. Now with my flaming red body, but I must admit smooth, and thinking the session was over then came the surprise massage which I hadn’t expected. My calves, thighs, arms, fingers, toes were all pinched, pulled, dug into and then this session ended as quickly as it started. Essa, disappeared only to return with a bucket of luke warm water which she tossed over me. Then with a soapy towel, which magically created an entire covering of suds with only my face showing out of the white foam (reminding me of an Annie Leibowitz photo of Whoppi Goldberg immersed in white milk). Slap, turn over. More buckets of water, encore again with the foamy suds.

By now, Essa and I had become so close and personal, that I actually smiled at her and she at me. As the session came to an end, slap, I sat up and as she saw me looking for my now soaking wet bathing suit on the floor, handed this somewhat out of place garment.. With the necessary rubber slippers on the dangerously wet marble floor, Essa place my feet into them then brought me a dry towel.

Slap and upright, she showed me through the snake of rooms to the locker area where she said goodbye in English. I felt duty bound to leave a larger than usual tip as I headed to the fresh air and cloudless sky of this historic city. And whenever someone taps, touches or slaps, I’ll remember Essa.