An Antipodean guide to Turkish baths
In Istanbul as part of his Busabout Ottoman Trek, Andrew Allen (aka The Antipodean) steps timorously into a Turkish bath and faces a common dilemma: what (not) to wear...
I was assured when purchasing this massage that I wouldn’t need to go the full monty, but the man who welcomed us a few minutes ago made it very clear that we should leave everything in the little private changing room. Everything.
I strip off, wrap a towel around me and tiptoe down the wooden stairs. My friends – two other Antipodeans and a Canadian – are already waiting for me, looking as pasty and as alarmed as I am. We’re ushered through a low doorway into the baths, around a large marble waist-high square that looks as though it could hold 30 men. The humidity is high, but not unbearable – more sub-Saharan rainforest than underwater volcano.
Then I realise that we’re not actually in the sauna yet. I discover this when we’re pushed inside a small door to a room that is most definitely the sauna. It smells like salt and sweat.
I wish there was a temperature gauge, because I’m certain we’re somewhere around the boiling point of water, or at least the boiling point of humans.
After what feels like an age, but is probably only a few minutes, we can bear it no more. We slip back to the area with the large white raised square of marble, which now feels pleasantly cool. We lie on our backs on the marble slab trying to work out what’s in store.
Knowing the actual massage part is coming up, one of my friends whispers, ‘Have you followed instructions and worn nothing under your towels?’ I admit that I’ve still got briefs on underneath. He chuckles, saying he’s done the same. So has the other Antipodean. After a pause, the Canadian emits a nervous laugh.
Moments later, I’m whisked away by a shirtless man who reminds me of a pirate. I think it’s a combination of the beard, the leathery skin, and the surreptitious gleam in his eye.
He sits me down in a small basin. I can see my friends out of the corner of my eye, glancing over from the slab with trepidation. The pirate puts something like a large oven mitt on his hand then slaps it ceremoniously down on my back. It knocks the wind out of me with an audible groan. Someone giggles apprehensively from the slab.
Then my masseur starts to scrub me like an old roasting pan, pausing momentarily to twist my body into strange positions. Eventually, he throws a bucket of water at me and motions for me to get up. Thankfully, the water is room temperature and it’s actually quite pleasant. It even smells sweet.
I’m directed back to the slab, where my arms and legs are positioned carefully. My masseur picks up a large cloth bag, like a pillow case, and waves it around a little. I blink quickly, trying to work out whether the next part will hurt or not. Then he grins like a magician about to pull a rabbit from a hat and squeezes the air out of the pillowcase, covering me in foam.
I’m embarrassed when he peeks under my towel and spies my underwear. I realise that he’s skilled at carefully placing towels and foam; if I’d followed instructions I’d still have my dignity intact.
He throws another bucket of water over my head to wash off the suds. ‘You like?’ he enquires enthusiastically, holding out his palms. I smile and thank him, though I’m not sure where he expected me to hide a tip.
I escape to the spa pool and wait for the others to emerge. I look up at the roughly cut stone domed roof, hollowed out more than five hundred years ago, and realise just how much I’ve enjoyed this experience. When I go to leave, I am towelled dry and wrapped up like Ali Baba.
I’d definitely recommend taking a Turkish bath in Istanbul – but my advice would be: relax! The masseurs know what they’re doing and want you to have a good experience.
Of course, it’s easy to say that with the benefit of hindsight!
To book this trip and experience these snapshots for yourself, call our consultants on 0208 045 4186.