Istanbul: A Turkish Bath

Harem ticketYesterday’s events seemed like a dream when I awoke, but despite what has happened another day began—today, at least, the world hasn’t yet come to an end.

After a subdued breakfast we took a tram to Eminonu, then a taxi to the Dolmabahce Palace. This huge European-style pile, built between 1843 and 1856, was financed by overseas loans; but that obviously didn’t stop the fading Ottoman sultans from indulging their tendency towards sumptuous decoration and excessive splendor. We took two two tours, the first through the Selamlike, the Ceremonial Suites, and the second the Harem – Cariyeler, the Harem and Concubines Quarter. The main ceremonial chamber at the end of the first tour was the size of a mosque and featured a four-tonne chandelier as its centrepiece.

From Dolmabahce we took a taxi north to the more European part of the city, lingering over lunch at a restaurant in a covered arcade in the Galatsaray area. Then a very enjoyable walk up the Istiklal Cad, an old tramline in the centre of this pedestrian street, to stop at Tunel Square. A fascinating contrast to the more touristy old city.

It was almost the time, sadly, for S & P to catch their flight to Cyprus. Picking up their bags (we’d all checked out this morning) they got a taxi and we hugged each other and said goodbye. Who knows when I’ll see them next. I’m really going to miss their company.

I suddenly felt very alone after I’d waved them around the corner and I was standing by myself in Istanbul. I shouldered the bag I bought in India and trudged through the streets wet with rain that had been falling all day, heading for a place called Cagaloglu Hamimi. I’d promised myself the Turkish Bath experience before heading inland.

Inside I was put in the hands of V, a man in his 40s wearing a towel and carrying a fledgling pot belly. He directed me to a small room to change. I changed into a swimming costume and wrapped a towel around my waist.

Guided through an antechamber, a wooden door was opened and I was plunged into the thick atmosphere of a large marble domed chamber, as hot as a sauna. I was left to lie on the central marble table—a slab big enough for twenty men to recline on—and for the next ten or fifteen minutes I lay on my back, sweating buckets, listening to the slow drip of water and staring up at the pierced dome. It was easy to imagine myself in ancient Roman times.

Eventually V returned and subjected me to a full massage, kneading me all over like sweaty dough. Then we moved to a corner of the room next to a basin of water, and I was scraped down with a rough mitten. Rolls of dead skin came off me until I felt like a moulting snake. Then I was doused with warm and then tepid water.

V then knealt next to me and gave me the hard sell for some extra money for a ‘proper’ massage. It being not every day I visit a Turkish bath, I thought why not. I think everything totalled up to about $45 in the end.

No doubt happy at shafting another gullible tourist, V instructed me to lie on my back, got me to remove my swimming togs (which were laid over me as a concession to modesty), then he went off and returned with a bowl with a dozen cakes of soap in it and a big hand-held mop. With this he built up a thick lather in the bowl and the big soaping-down began, followed by a much more intensive massage from fingertips to toe-ends. There’s a certain feeling of vulnerability that creeps up on you when you’re lying naked and lathered up on a marble floor in an ancient sauna with a burly Turkish man manipulating your limbs. Your worst nightmare comes unbidden to mind—for example, the sound of a bolt being drawn to, and looking up to find the room deserted save for ten big Turkish blokes standing at the doorway, the biggest dangling the keys nonchalantly from his finger …

Luckily however, activities we restrained solely to soaping and massaging, but by the time V was finished I was completely exhausted, could hardly catch my breath from the heat, and suddenly realised my heart was beating like a trip hammer rather than slowly and steadily. Unfortunately, I suddenly realised, I’d had nothing to drink since two beers at lunch and was suffering severe dehydration. I was helped to the antechamber where I managed to stammer out a plea for water; the next thing I knew I was on the floor, my knee hurt, and five men were around me jabbering in Turkish. I’d gone out like a light.

No doubt discussing the jellyfish spines of all men non-Turkish, the men got me to a seat, and fortified with more water I quickly recovered. I’d only knocked my knee – V must have caught me as I went down – and after a rest I was OK again. But I was glad to pay my tip to V and get out of there. Next time, I’ll drink a gallon of water before venturing into a Turkish bath …

It was time to get moving. I picked up my bag, got a taxi to Eminonu, walked across the Galata Bridge and caught the ferry across the Bosphorus to Haydarpasa, the train station on the Asian side. The mosques were like huge lit Christmas trees as the ferry pulled away.

I had dinner at a train station restaurant and at 11.30pm boarded the very modern and comfortable Fatih Eckspresi to Ankara, leaving Istanbul by night for places unknown.

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