Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie at… Ayasofya Hammam, Istanbul

‘I feel – and maybe look – like a serving of steak tartar’

Spa Junkie at… Ayasofya Hammam, Istanbul

November 19 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2

This is probably the closet thing to a spa junkie’s Mecca there is. Nestled away in the Sultanahmet Square in the ancient walled city that used to be called Constantinople, between two of its most important historical and religious landmarks – the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – you find the treasure that is the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami. It’s a hot steamy place of beauty, a must-do pilgrimage.

TUESDAY, 4.45pm

A DIY blonde with some serious rootage, wearing nothing but a cloth and a few spare tyres – I count three, layered like the Michelin man – with a bright smile and a firm hand comes to greet me. “Hi, my name is Baa-Haa-Rrr, no speak English, OK?”

Hi Bahar, don’t worry, just make good scrub and you can make it strong, OK?

I think she gets it.

The hammam is elegantly housed in a stunning bathhouse created by the chief Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, responsible for more than 300 major structures in his time. The story goes that the bathhouse was created for the notorious Hurrem, a slave who eventually became the wife of the Sultan Suleiman. In the ensuing years it has had many reincarnations, and was a carpet store until not too long ago; but a recent renovation has left the baths marble-floored, white-walled and surprisingly clean. It’s not the manky, Porchester baths, balls-of-black-hair-in-the-corners stuff. No; here, dare I say it, I would feel comfortable to walk barefoot.

5pm

Bahar wraps me in the pestemal – otherwise known as a muslin cloth – and sits me in one of the five hot rooms that lead off from the central dome and the goebektasas, the heated round raised massage marble table.

Bahar is using a tas (dish) to pour hot and cold water over me. She pours it over my head again and again and again, until the term “drowned rat” springs to mind.

5.15pm

Thoroughly soaked, and pores now wide open, I am led into the dome and laid on the marble, the dim light shining through tiny little polygon windows in the roof; just as she puts on the kese (the rough mitten), the adhan, or call to prayer, begins. I am transported back hundreds of years; I feel like an Ottoman Harema. It’s simply magical. The hammam was the cornerstone of the Ottoman female social scene; women came a few times a week to catch up, eat and gossip – a bit like the New York power lunchers, the caesar salad and chardonnay brigade on Madison today. Local lore recounts that if the man did not bring in enough coin to cover the cost, the woman was entitled to a divorce!

Woooah. The coarse mitten feels like sandpaper on my skin as she agressively scrubs me up and down from my head to my toes, turning me round and going over most places twice.

She is really going for it, and even for me is perhaps a little heavy handed. But this is what I asked for, after all, so I grin and bear it, my “pain for beauty” mantra on a loop in my mind.

5.30pm

I am scrubbed raw – no word of a lie. If I were sensitive-skinned, I’d have wanted to know in advance just how rigorous this treatment can be. I wish I’d not asked her to go so strong, since I feel – and maybe look – like a serving of steak tartar.

Next Bahar takes a pillowcase and dips it into a bucket of soap, sways it back and forth in quite a rhythmic manner and empties the foam out onto my body. There is an ominous smell of Fairy; and the substance foams a little like a dishwashing liquid…

I’m going to decline the hair wash; if my hunch is right, my fake blonde will change colour, and I will leave a green fairy!

5.45pm

I get a final wash-down in the third room, and a fantastic deep-tissue massage finishes the experience.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As far as scrubs go, this was not superior or different to what one finds in hammams in general, but what I loved about this place in particular is the splendid dome and geography, the calls to prayer, and the feeling that I was in the birthplace of what we know as the Turkish bath.

What a lovely way to while away a few hours after a busy morning haggling for gold in the ancient bazaar. I’ll be honest: it is definitely a bit of a tourist trap; but they do what they do with style, and it still feels authentic. So if you are travelling to Turkey, book in solo or à deux. It will leave you revived and refreshed, and will certainly shed new light on our rather mundane daily bathing routine.

Spa Junkie paid €150 for her hammam with massage experience.

Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, treatments and accommodation.