April 14 2011
There are few experiences more pleasurable than being able to languish in the warmth of a hammam. I’ve tried hammams in Granada and Tunis, and I once skipped a couple of fashion shows so that I could enjoy an afternoon gommage with a friend in the hammam under the Paris Mosque. So when I arrived in Istanbul last month, I had “Visit a traditional Turkish bath” top of my must-do list.
As my friend Lucie and I explored the city, there were biting breezes coming off the Bosphorus, so we decided that we needed to warm up before supper. Istanbul is, as you’d expect, home to many hammams; our choice was Çemberlitas, situated near the Grand Bazaar, because at more than 400 years old and designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, it promised to be an authentic experience, as well as a relaxing one. And so it proved.
Inside, having changed and wrapped ourselves tightly in what resembled red plaid restaurant tablecloths, but were actually traditional pestemal towels, we headed for a large, heated circular marble slab, where others laid out to relax, perspire or await treatment. Lying on our backs, we marvelled at the light streaming in through the dome-shaped roof above, with its colander-style perforations. Judging by the babble of Turkish voices in the plunge pool (pictured) or women sipping apple tea on the sofas in the relaxation area, the hammam is very much a place for a post-work gathering; most of these women opted for a DIY scrub, but we had chosen treatments, which came in the form of a rather large lady who approached and gestured for me to turn over onto my front.
For the next 15 minutes she created a vigorous lather of bubble wash using a fabric scrubber, softer than a loofah, before washing the bubbles away with jugs of water. Afterwards came the warm plunge pool, a dry-off with warm fluffy towels followed by a delicious 30-minute massage with aromatherapy oils.
Back in the foyer, sipping fresh pomegranate juice, we felt scrubbed and squeaky (for a very reasonable £40) and ready to return to the hubbub of Istanbul.