As soon as I was undressed and inside the hamam – Turkish bath – I realised that in my enthusiasm, I hadn’t thought through what would happen to me. But when I saw a strong-limbed Turkish woman who was dripping wet and completely naked bar the big masculine flip flops she was wearing, heading in my direction, I began to get the picture.
I’m a firm believer in seeking out things I can’t indulge in at home and I had decided by hook or by crook, I was going to get myself the full ‘hamam’ treatment. But I hadn’t bargained on this. The hamam is the traditional Turkish bath – a must for the 21st century hedonist who needs purification. They are peppered all over the city. Their genesis springs from the Muslim tradition of washing before prayer, so the many thousand Mosques in Istanbul would all have had baths nearby, laid on for this ritual.
So here I was – my guide book told me it opened till midnight, so at 10.20pm I was handing over my credit card demanding the works. I went for the whole shebang – a sponge and scrub down, a hair wash and a full body massage. Treatments range from 7euro for a basic visit, where you keep your pestemal on (tea-cloth-like towel you’re given upon entrance), and wash yourself or you pay 30euro and see what happens!
Because it was late, I was alone there so I stripped off in the locker room and a seven or eight-year-old girl showed me the way. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and entered a spacious chamber that housed a heated octagonal marble slab in under an enormous star-studded domed ceiling. It was spotlessly clean. There were alcoves off the room, equipped with brass taps and little brass bowls for washing. I lay down and took it all in, delighted I had finally made it.
But I had not expected this. I didn’t manage to catch her name, so for convenience sake, I’ll call her Wet Woman. Wet Woman wasted no time, (presumably she’d been caught mid-shower and was called upon to perform her last wash of the evening). She whipped the pestemal from my body and ordered me to ‘lie please’ and before I knew it she had lathered me up and proceeded to scrub me down vigorously. Wet Woman did not like filth, she scrubbed and scrubbed as if I were a dirty pot. All the time she was muttering some weird incantation. She flipped me over onto my belly and went to work on my behind. She pummelled and scrubbed and sluiced until I was dizzy. She beckoned me to an alcove and I followed like the obedient ragdoll I’d become. She ordered me to ‘sit please’ where she washed my hair and got suds in my eyes and I really began to feel like I was six years old again and sitting in the kitchen sink at home with my mother. After she sluiced me down with bowl after bowl of water, she dried me off and finally set me free. The full body massage I received from a sweet, fully clothed Armenian woman after, went some way towards helping me recover from the shock. It was truly an invigorating and memorable experience. I’d go again in a heartbeat, though I’d much rather if Wet Woman wore the customary swimsuit next time.
I sailed out of the place and later, seated on a balmy rooftop terrace sipping a local brew, with the minarets of the Blue Mosque in a sunset silhouette to my left and the sound of the swishing Bosphorous to my right, I decided I would definitely be returning to Istanbul.
A truly bewitching city, Istanbul looks like a mountainous fishing town that has spread to Gulliver-like proportions. Completely surrounded by blue bulging sea from the Bosphorous, to the Golden Horn, the waters see a constant passage of ferries, ships and cruise liners. It’s on a par with Rome for its beauty, Dublin for its small town laid back feel (and chaotic traffic), Cairo for its manic markets but nowhere surpasses its sheer diversity and dizzying oceanic expanse.
First known as Byzantium, then Constantinople and now Istanbul, with Asia on its east side and Europe on its west, its strategic position has guaranteed it a major role in world affairs throughout the centuries. The Persians, Byzantines, Romans and Ottomans all fought over, occupied and traded through the city. But, now it’s poised for an Irish invasion, thanks to a new direct flight from Dublin being offered by Turkish Airlines for a mere euro149 return. It is the ideal city break for jaded travellers, intent on finding somewhere new and thrilling.
There is so much to see, I can only offer a slice of Istanbul’s cultural pie. I recommend staying in the Sultanahamet area, as it is within walking distance of many attractions.
First stop is Topkapi Palace. Of all Istanbul’s rulers, the greatest impact was made by the Ottoman sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent who reigned for 46 years from 1520. He ordered the building of Topkapi Palace which flows down a hill overlooking the Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara. You’d need at least half a day to visit but at least see the tiled underground rooms of the Harem, where the Sultan’s wives and concubines lived as well as his own hamam.
From Topkapi, the ornate gardens of Sultanahamet Square lead to the striking Sultanahamet Mosque with its soaring minarets and sensuous domes. The interior is covered in blue tiles, hence it’s known as the Blue Mosque. It is a truly dazzling structure. Not far from there is the heavily tiled Byzantine masterpiece of Hagia Sophia (Greek for ‘Divine Wisdom’). This building with its red-washed walls was originally a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. Rapidly constructed between 532 and 537 it boasts a vast dome, once the world’s largest, before St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and St. Peter’s in Rome surpassed it. Also worth a visit is the underground Basilica cistern dating from the time of the 6th century Roman emperor Justinian.
In between all the culture, one must eat. The fruit and vegetables are amazing. Turkey is a huge agricultural exporter and most of the crops are organic as farmers cannot afford the pesticides. I ate black cherries, tiny green plums and juicy watermelon every morning for breakfast. Hamdi restaurant is a great spot for a rooftop lunch of their famous kebabs, with its stupendous view of the Golden Horn and Galata bridge beyond. Fresh fish is a must. For dinner, you can take a cruise along the Bosphorous and dine on board, (it’s wiser to opt for smaller companies instead of the big tourist vessels). The Bosphorous villages are home to many spots where you can dine overlooking the sea. Prices vary but the same rule applies everywhere – you always pay a little more for the view.
For night owls, Beyoglu is party central and the counter-culture music scene is groovy. Almost every side street off the Istiklal Caddesi is full of bars, with most by Taksim Square. Nearby, is the renowned Pera Palace Hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder On The Orient Express. A delightful old-world place to have a Turkish coffee to give you the caffeine-fuelled energy necessary to haggle your way through the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The markets are not to be missed. I preferred the local flavour of the Spice Bazaar – where you can buy lawnmowers, soap, apple tea, gold, herbal remedies and fruit all under one roof! Many go to buy rugs but I bought some beautiful hand-painted tiles in the Grand Bazaar and I plan to use them as the main feature in my own tiny bathroom which is currently being transformed into a mini hamam. Whether I like to admit it or not, Wet Woman has made a lasting impression.
(c) Amy Redmond June 2006
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Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Cemberlitas (0212 522 7974)
Open 6am – midnight
Built in 1584 and have been in continual use ever since. There are sections for both sexes. Good place for first visit as more than likely someone will speak English at reception.
A nargile is a waterpipe. Also a hookah. Smoked since 17th century. Best place to sample it is pedestrian strip off Tophane Iskelesi behind the Nusretiye Mosque. Avoid fruity tobaccos.
- WHIRLING DERVISHES
A gruelling three-year training, these mystics whirl to attain closeness to divinity. You can see them every Sunday at 5pm at Galata Mevlevihanesi from May to September.
For background info: www.mevlana.net
- See Time Out or Lonely Planet Istanbul for accommodation options ranging from inexpensive hostels to snazzy state-of-the-art boutique hotels
- Walk as much as possible. Don’t rent a car. Driving is chaotic and rush-hour traffic horrendous. Take trams and ferries during the day and cabs everywhere at night. Relatively inexpensive.
- Drink bottled water, it’s safer.
- Women do not need to cover up as much as expected. Many Turkish girls wear vests and jeans.
- Try baklava, their delicious desert
- Make sure you have a chaperone if you drink Raki! Bring a bottle home.
HIGH RESOLUTION PICTURES