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A Visit To A Hammam

A Traditional Turkish Bath in Istanbul

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The Cagaloglu Hamam is one of the most famous hammams in Istanbul.

Istanbul is known for its Turkish bath -- also known as hammams (hamams). Here's what happens in a traditional Turkish bath, or hammam. Upon entering the hammam, you will find yourself in a dressing room, or camekan, which is surrounded by private cubicles where you dress. Your attendant will give you a cotton wrap, or pestemal, and a pair of slippers, or terlik, along with a key to your cubicle.

Once you have removed all your clothing and wrapped the cotton cloth around you sarong style like a skirt, you are ready to go.

Your attendant will ask you if you need a soap, towel or shampoo. Be sure to bring your own. Some baths do offer them, but they are expensive and not high quality.

The attendants may not speak much English so communicating what you would like – a bath and massage, or just bath -- may be a challenge. You'll be given the choice of bathing myself or receiving a scrub, or massage. I said yes to all options!

Working Up A Sweat In a Turkish Bath

You're taken to a warm, humid room with a raised stone platform (goebektas) in the center, surrounded by bathing alcoves, in pretty coloured quartz tiles. The tiles remove static electricity from the air, and help to relax the mind and body. The light, diffused through glass in the ceiling is soft and relaxing.

You lay or sit on the platform, which is heated, and work up a sweat. The attendant then leads you to one of the basins, and you're scrubbed cleaner than you ever have been, and again. She uses a coarse mitt to remove layers of dead skin, then comes the soap. She uses a lacy cloth, like an icing bag, and blows through it to create bubbles so you're covered from head to toe with white frothy bubbles.

Next, you are doused in warm water again and my attendant disappeared. This is to allow me to clean my private areas myself. Total nudity is fine, but some women wear underwear.

For the massage you go back to the stone platform, and it might be a bit rougher than a traditional Swedish massage. After the massage you are handed towels and then taken to the cool room to cool down and drink tea.

After your rest, it is time to head back to the cubicle to get dressed. Although a scrub and massage generally takes an hour and a half, you can take as much time as you need. It's about $20 for a scrub and massage.

Not everyone is keen for the real Turkish bath experience and to struggle with communicating what you would like. At some tourist hammams, cleanliness can also be an issue.

Five-Star Hotels Have Hammams

Luckily several five-star hotels in Istanbul have hammams that offer a traditional experience that is relaxed, luxurious and comfortable enough for Western tastes. Some even have special bridal hammam ceremonies for the bride and her friends. The Laveda Spa at the Ritz Carlton, Istanbul has its own hammam and offers a blissful experience. First, you are exfoliated with kese, a soft massage with lavender, tea, chamomile or olive oil soap.

Forget about asking for a bathing cap to keep your blowout. The hair wash is one of the best parts, with hair balsam, and scalp massage. For total indulgence, try the Sultans Royal Six Hands massage, applied by three trained artists.

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