I read so many Turkish hammam horror stories online from other travel bloggers that my curiosity got sufficiently piqued: I just had to volunteer myself on the naked altar of the body scrub sacrifice for the greater good of this blog (I know, tough…) – a rather painful and awkward experience by many if not all accounts. Tales of buck-naked merciless scrubs in crowded rooms, with nude masseuses getting to second base with prude North Americans had me sort of worried as I stepped inside Kiliç Ali Paşa Hamami in Istanbul, not really knowing if the tales were true. Thankfully, I quickly learned that the Turkish hammam experience can be a blissful, relaxing and absolutely beautiful one. Without further ado, here’s how I found myself naked as a jaybird with a bunch of other women from all over the world in the center of Istanbul.
Traditionally, hammams are annexed to mosques for people to perform ablution, or cleansing, before entering the prayer hall, so don’t be surprised when the place you enter in the nude to be scrubbed looks more like a place of worship than a spa. And in some ways it is a place of worship – being scrubbed and washed under these gorgeous domes where light softly filters through star-shaped cutouts and where the only noise to be heard is the echo of running water with dozens of gorgeous women – all of us naked – felt like nothing short of a sacred ritual, a worship of the body of sorts. And it was blissful.
After entering Kiliç Ali Paşa and filling all the mandatory paperwork, I am served a chilled glass of sherbet, a traditional Turkish beverage made of fruits and flower petals and am left to admire the glorious hall’s main dome and take in the mystical environment while sipping on the delicious sweet drink. Then, an attendant comes and hands me a peştamal (the classic cotton Turkish towel) and gives me all of the required instructions on how to get ready and how my treatment is going to take place, so there is no room for awkward guessing moments, which I am thankful for. She also tells me to keep my bikini bottoms on, which appeases my inner North American prudeness.
The time has come and I enter the hammam with my peştamal securely wrapped around my naked body only to get it whisked right off of me by one of the thankfully not-naked hammam attendants. After being drenched in water from head to toe, I am instructed to join a bunch of women already lying down on the heated marble slab at the center of the room. It instantly warms me up and relaxes me. I take advantage of lying there to peek around and see how the treatment is being performed. I see beautiful naked bodies of all shapes and sizes being scrubbed and massaged under mountains of soap suds. It is a wonderfully peaceful and soothing ambiance and the only voices are from the attendants calling us all “lady”, which I love.
Finally it is my turn to be taken away from the hot marble slab and, after guzzling down a huge glass of cold water, I am taken to my washing station and instructed to sit down next to the tap my natir (my hammam attendant) will be using to, in turn: scrub me with a mitt, massage me, and wash me with a ridiculous amount of suds she produced by soaking a pillow case in soapy water, filling it with air to create bubbles and pouring it all over my body. It is so silky and feels truly cleansing. Then, she asks if I’d like her to wash my hair (duh!), rinses me thoroughly, returns me to the marble slab for a little extra relaxation and finally calls to me (lady!) to follow her to the room next door were she dries me and wraps me in a million towels. It feels intimate, almost motherly, and I loved every minute of it. After this, she escorts me back to the main hall where it all started and I am handed a refreshing face towel and ordered to just lay down and relax until my massage therapist comes to get me.
The massage is gentle and the attendant first puts a big fluffy blanket over my body and gently rubs me up and down over the blanket. For some reasons, this soothing motion brings tears to my eyes. It’s so comforting and exactly what I needed after leaving South East Asia just a few days prior and feeling a bit lost entering the Western world again. I kind of wished she’d done only that, or even better hugged me, but the massage was very pleasant nonetheless. A lot more gentle than what I have grown accustomed to in Thailand that’s for sure!
Unfortunately all good things come to an end and I am ultimately returned to my locker to get dressed. Unlike some of the horrifying tales I have read online, I feel serene, relaxed, cleansed and my skin feels amazing. I would go to the hammam every day if I could! It’s such a beautiful ritual and tradition and I urge you to try one if you visit Turkey.
Have you been to a hammam? How was your experience?
Many thanks to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamami for having me. As always, all opinions all my own.