24 December 2013

A visit to a Turkish bath

Both relaxing and stunning - which is a hard combo to pull off

I was in Istanbul for work last week (that's a phrase I will probably not tire of dropping into conversation anytime soon). I was also in Rotterdam for the same reason (I mention that far less frequently). Both days of work were similar - I was a role play actor for a corporate client.

I love playing the role of role playing actor, because it reminds me of camp counselling; lots of listening, advice and work to foster good communications in the workplace, and hopefully make people more successful. There's no crafts or talent shows or swimming, but it still feels like it's the same type of work; it's fun.

Plus I love going into workplaces for a short period of time, to sample the culture and learn about what goes on there, but not have to go there every day at the same time. Going to the same place at the same time everyday to do the same thing, while offering a sense of stability and security, is something I don't miss at all about having a regular job.

But the day of work was not the best thing about my first trip to Istanbul. Nope. The best thing was going back to my hotel on Friday evening to find my wife, and spending the weekend with her.

Neither of us had ever been to Istanbul and the fact is we loved it. Situated on three peninsulas, each with a different character we enjoyed mostly the old town (Sultanahmet) but ferried and trammed our way into the other parts.

Highlights included visiting the Hagia Sofia, lunching with the owner's son at a sidewalk cafe in the Grand Bazaar, visiting the maginficent and tranquil Blue Mosque and getting hustled by a shoeshine man.

The Turkish Bath
Not much to look at from the outside
But it was unanimously agreed upon by both of us that the best thing we did was have a Turkish bath. It was Cemberlitas Hamam, built in 1584. From the outside, if you don't look up and notice the massive marble domes, it looks like a downmarket drycleaner. Which makes the spacious and imposing interior that much
more impressive.

Trying to figure out what to do was disconcerting, and speaking two words of Turkish as I do (Hello and thanks), proved to be small help. But in the end, Turkish bathing is pretty straightforward. And damn enjoyable.

After purchasing your treatment - Chiara and I went for the basic scrub and massage - we were given packages (mine had a hand scrub, hers had a hand scrub and panties) and sent to our respective chambers.

I couldn't help but be reminded of Spirited Away while I was there, all wood and lofty ceiling in the main area. And steam and buckets. I went upstairs to my personal chamber, and the attendant at the top of the stairs helpfully instructed me on what to do. "Naked" he said, pointing at the wrap and slippers inside the room.

So I disrobed, grabbed the peştemal (towel wrap), put on the slippers, locked my room and put the key on my wrist, then headed for the chamber.  Then I entered the first door, past the shower, and into the huge dome of the bath itself. I was alone. As I was for the major part of my experience. There's amazing acoustics in there, I discovered as humming to myself and clattering bowls around the marble slab.

While there I lounged around on the octagonal marble platform, and threw water on me from the blue buckets scattered around.

After a few minutes I was wet and sweaty, as is the intention of the heat and water. A late middle-aged Turkish man came in and took control. He was also attired in a peştemal. He immediately set to work scrubbing me down with the hand cloth.

I'd been warned that this can be quite painful, and in online reviews many people found their experience rushed or unpleasant. Not so for me. He laid me down on the edge of the platform and gave me a good scrubbing (I know how that sounds). Then he sat me up, and continued. An embarrassing amount of dead skin sloughed off. I was then splashed with a bucket of warm water like this was a driveway car wash. Afterwards, he laid me down again and soaped me up, before dousing me with more water.

The treatment also included a head massage and hair wash in one of the little sub-alcoves off the main dome. The guy even threw in some amateur chiropracty on my back and neck. For which I'm not entirely sure I'm grateful, but I respect him going the extra mile. And it appears no harm was done.

The Turkish bath is a great place to get Spirited Away

Afterwards I sat relaxing again in the hamam, and then took a cold shower and relaxed in the main hall, waiting for Chiara. The women's side is very similar to the men's, only they also have a pool and a hot tub, so she took a little longer.

Afterwards we walked all of four minutes back to our hotel, feeling warm, clean and purified, and went directly into a restful sleep.

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