Of all the things to do in Istanbul, as Istanbul has a tradition of Turkish bathing dating back thousands of years, one of the most cultural experiences you can have is going to a Turkish hammam or Turkish bathhouse.
Most Turkish hammams are decked out in marble and have high domed ceilings. There are heated slabs on which bathers sweat and chat.
Fortunately, many Turkish hammams in the capital cater to foreigners and provide a variety of treatments.
The Turkish hammam experience ranges from economical do-it-yourself bathrooms, where you’re provided with soap, shampoo and a towel up to the royal treatment in a luxury five-star hotel spa.
Traditional Turkish Hammam
At Suleymaniye Turkish hammam, the pamphlet offers “free life insurance during washing in the hammam and shuttle service”.
That was enough to put me off!
I plucked up some courage and drifted into Cemberlitas Hamami, partly attracted by the building designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan and partly because I felt I needed to experience a Turkish hammam in Istanbul.
The reception area was filled with men of different shapes wearing little more than towels wrapped around their waists.
I suppressed the urge to flee as the attendant pushed a menu in front of me.
“First you select treatment then he shows you women’s hammam,” he said, pointing at a scruffy teenaged lad.
Unable to concentrate on the menu, an image of myself lying naked in a vast marble hall full of noisy strangers while being kneaded and scrubbed by a hefty Turkish masseuse didn’t really hold much appeal.
The luxury of a Turkish Bathhouse
Luckily, there are plenty of luxurious hotels in the city – including the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton and Ciragan Palace Kempinski – that have private hammams.
A five-star Turkish Hamman encounter seemed a lot more appealing.
Rather than bathing in a large common hall, guests are treated in small marble hammam rooms decorated with designer appointments and decked out with everything you’d expect in a luxury resort spa.
You’ll find thick terry-towelling bathrobes, scented aromatherapy oils, designer toiletries, herbal teas and luxuriously furnished lounge rooms.
I found myself in the spa of the opulent Ritz Carlton in the trendy Beyoglu district.
After 10 minutes in a little steam room, I was guided into the ring-shaped hammam room lined with light grey marble from the quarries of the Afyon region in Turkey.
Water gushed from ornate bronze faucets and blue Iznik tiles with floral designs decorated the walls.
In the centre of the room was a round marble dais modelled after a 16th-century Turkish hammam.
My attendant was a middle-aged woman called Fatima. She stripped down to a blue one-piece swimsuit and got to work.
I had signed up for the Ritz-Carlton Ultimate Hamam Treatment. But wished I had picked one of the more decadent treatments, such as the Sultan’s Royal Six Hands Massage or a honey and milk or wine bath.
“First-time hammam?” asked Fatima. I nodded.
“You baby, me mama,” she responded patting me on the arm.
Even though the room was big enough to accommodate two dozen bodies, unlike the traditional hammams, there was no one else besides Fatima and I.
“Baby lie here,” she pointed at the heated slab in the centre of the room.
I reluctantly took my place on the stone bed.
She poured warm water over my body with a beautifully engraved copper bowl then scrubbed me from head to toe.
I was splashed with more water and soaped with a fragrant body.
Then she began the massage and I felt like I was in heaven.
At the end of the treatment, Fatima had a grin from ear to ear. She patted me again on the shoulder as I left the marble room.
“You beautiful; you princess,” she said. And I after than treatment, I certainly felt like a princess.
Many visitors like to go in April, to pay respects to the soldiers who lost their lives in Gallipoli.