I had skipped the public baths in Budapest because the weather was uninspiring and I was busy enough just exploring neighborhoods and getting to my concerts. I did not want to miss a hammam experience in Istanbul, but I felt very unsure of what to expect, where and how to book, … Of course they are used to tourists but I also didn’t want to feel I was paying some exaggerated tourist price because I didn’t know better, nor did I want to go to a very local and basic place where communication might be awkward. So, I talked my friend Betul into joining me. I have twice experienced the hammam at the mosque of Paris. To Betul, that didn’t count at all: it wasn’t Turkish. She got her good friend in Istanbul to recommend a hamman, and then took care of our booking, so that I knew the price in advance, knew they gave a discount for cash, and knew we had a set package with no decisions needing to be made on the spot. Great.
Her choice: Kiliç Ali Pasa not far from Galataport / Beşiktaş. It was simple and elegant. This hammam has women’s hours during the day, men’s at night. We entered immediately into the central hall, with a high domed ceiling and a center slab of heated marble. We were each given a locker key and peştemal, then went upstairs to our cubical to strip down to undies and wrap up in the towel. Back in the main hall, we were invited to stretch out on the marble slab and absorb the heat. This central area had seating around the perimeter, and a lot of women were present, some solo, some paired, some in small groups. All were quiet, as quiet is requested so that the atmosphere is peaceful and relaxing. We probably spent 20 minutes lying on the marble, possibly 30. Then an attendant came to each of us and led us off to the bathing area, which was all marble, with seats alternating with wash basins. I cannot quite remember the order of things. We were splashed with water, certainly. I’ve read some hammam reviews online and saw a comment or two speaking of waterboarding, and yes, you have to laugh a bit, because when you see the attendant scoop up a little basin of water, you’d better be ready to be under a waterfall. Then there was an interesting ritual, wherein the attendant would dip something like a muslin pillowcase into a basin of soapy water, shake it a bit and then squeeze it out over me so that I would be covered with foam. There were quite a number of repetitions of this, on my back, front, legs, arms. This foam was not like bubble bath. It was more substantial, rich and creamy, with a pleasant, light perfume. Very emollient. Eventually, the scrubbing began. It’s an exfoliation procedure for all reachable parts of your body, so you stand for a moment for your thighs to be accessible. Even my face was scrubbed, and that before I could warn about my cancer surgery scar – which I would have thought was noticeable enough on my forehead, but no, she went right over it. Ouch! I made gestures to let her know that spot was not to be touched again. As for other sensitive bits, the attendant gestured to let me know I should cover my nipples with my hands and lift my breasts for them to be thoroughly scrubbed. At some point there was a bit of massage, but I don’t remember whether it was before or after scrubbing. I do remember that it was all from a seated position, just leaning forward for my back and neck, and so a bit awkward and less satisfying than a full body massage would be, although some time was spent on legs, feet, arms. At the end, it was shampoo time, and then conditioner was offered. After lots of rinsing, I was wrapped in a fresh peştemal and shown to the seating area, which was all upholstered and cushy. Betul’s attendant spent a bit more time with her. By the time she came, I’d already ordered a tea (at a small extra charge: a little rare as tea is usually included). After relaxing a while, which let our body temperatures normalize, we went to dress, put ourselves together, pay and leave. We felt thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied with the experience. And ready for nice cold beers.
Once I’d decided to stay on in Istanbul (beyond the week booked in advance), I knew I’d want to try another hammam. I left it for my last day, to be a bit relaxed before the stress of suitcases, transfers, flights. Since I had more shopping to do, I wanted to find a place convenient to the bazaar and my hotel. From reviews and Google maps, I picked out a place and made a reservation, only to have subsequent messages from the hammam to ensure I’d come to the right address – which was not at all the address of the place the web links showed me. That gave me a bad bait-and-switch feeling, so I decided to look further. (I see now, at http://sultansuleymanhamam.com/ that there are a number of affiliated hammams, so I would have been at a legitimately related property – but not the one whose reviews I’d read.)
The hammam I did go to was “Historic Vezneciler Hamami” in the university area. I chose the middle of the three package/price options, which was more expensive than both the first experience and the place I backed out of, at 800 TL. The addition of an oil massage was just too tempting.
This hamami has a modest entrance, and you climb a circulare flight of stone steps to reach the facility, I was surprised to find no other customers there. Certainly peaceful. This time, payment was requested before starting, and cash only – but I was prepared. This central room was furnished like a very modest living room: sofas, armchairs, small tables. Individual dressing room lined the perimeter. If, at the end, you would like to style your hair with a dryer, you’d be performing at the edge of the common space.
An attendant appeared, was presented to me, and then she showed me my room and gave me a peştemal to wrap up in. She then led me to the hammam room with the large hot marble slab and told me to relax there, maybe for 20 – 30 minutes. Ebreu (guessing at the spelling of her name) brought me a bottle of water, and led me next to a sauna! Double the heat treatment. There was a sign outside the sauna that was half peeled away, but I could make out that it was a warning about the sauna not being appropriate for those with any heart or blood pressure issues. That reminded me that during my searches, I had found some online reservation forms had you select your age from a dropdown list with a final range ending at age 60. I felt thankful for my health, and settled into the sauna, which had pleasant wood slat benches to stretch out on, and a soothing, not overly medicinal, eucalyptus scent in the air. After some time – maybe 15 minutes? – I heard a timer go off, and since I’d heard no one else about, I thought it was likely for me, but Ebreu did not appear. After another 5 minutes or so, I decided I’d had heat enough, and I stepped out, sat and drank more water.
Now it was bath time. We went to another marble room, where there was a long slab to lie on next to the sink the attendant would use. I was told to lie face down firrst, then turn, then sit, each time being well doused with water, and also covered with foam, once again by having a cloth squeezed out over me. These suds weren’t as impressive as my first experience, wtih Betul. Here, I thought it seemed like a cheap, slightly lemony, quite watered down dish detergent. Nothing nasty about the scent, but nothing pleasurable either; the suds were just functional.
Of course a good scrubbing followed. The procedure here, with the client lying down rather than sitting up as at the first hammam, seemed much more natural, comfortable and thorough. Once I was rinsed and my hair shampooed (no conditioner here), I was wrapped in dry towels. It was massage time.
For the massage, we went upstairs to an individual room, where I lay on a typical massage bench. It was an oil massage; what kind? no answer in English other than “organic.” Whatever … there was no scent, so I do wonder what it was. But my skin felt wonderful afterwards. And this was a serious massage. Oh did she find knots in my upper back, shoulders and neck, and ouch were they worked. Yao! But I chose to tough it out rather than ask for a lighter workover. When I left the hammam, I did feel very good.
After the massage, I was wrapped in three towels and taken to the living room where there were now other customers! I was brought a cup of hot water and a box of tea bags, to make my own choice of beverage. Then it was time to dress and go.
Vezneciler handles men and women at all hours, in separate sections. I would return, and I would recommend it. It wasn’t a visual delight; some interesting details, some appealing antique features, but all in all rather plain. For me, a good experience.