After three months in Istanbul, I was more than ready for a little pampering and a good scrub. An eponymous, easy-to-find tram stop leads to an Amazing Race-style search for the main door. I was enjoying a fresh pomegranate juice two doors down when someone came asking for the hamam and refused to believe that it was literally two doors down. This easy-to-miss door is the unlikely entrance to the soaring ceilings of Çemberlitaş, built by the hard-working architect Sinan (designer of the Blue, amongst other mosques) in 1584.
The no-nonsense front desk clerk pointed out the main services on the signs and recited from memory the prices for a variety of esthetic services including waxing and mani-pedi ranging from 5 to 50 TL. We were handed tokens for our purchases and efficiently directed to the women-only area: a soaring three-storey dome of wood and marble. The circular floors held, from the top, esthetic services in simple booths, lockers, and big comfy sofas for lazing about and watching the fountain.
In the change booths we were handed brand-new (tags attached) bikini bottoms and exfoliating mittens and plaid Turkish towels. All clothes, hang ups, prudishness and self-consciousness had to be stowed in a lovely wooden locker. We were next ushered through into a big steamy room with a giant hot marble plate in the middle, where the modesty offered by the towel was short-lived. An attendant took the towel, laid it on one of the few empty spots and said three of the most beautiful words in any language: “Lady, relax here.”
I stared up at the beautiful stars thoughtfully carved by Sinan high above as I felt my cares melt away. Just as I was almost asleep, my attendant poured cold water on me and began to scrub me with the mitten, front and back. She left to get warm water from one of the faucets surrounding the room as I stared at my arms with dawning horror at the realization that the grey sticky balls were my own dirty skin! After a good rinse and good riddance my attendant massaged me overeasy head-to-toe, with the soapiest, bubbliest fantasyland bubbles, through which process I discovered that my collarbone is extremely ticklish.
After that I was free to relax on my (now soaking wet) towel, enjoy my clay facial mask (15 TL), dip into one of the two plunge pools, or douse myself with various temperatures of water. I did all but the last as it reminded me of bathing with the kettle when I had no hot water and thus held no appeal.
As we began to turn prunish, we bundled into oversize plush green towels and then lounged on the sofas while attendants brought us fresh-squeezed orange juice. My expat colleague and I marvelled at the 3-hour experience, and the fact that so many of our local acquaintances had never been. Whether touristy or anciently authentic, 69 TL for a Traditional-style bath is an ideal respite from the bustle of the city and a great way to get really, really clean.