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Stephanie March's Istanbul Diary: The Turkish Hamam

by Stephanie March

No, this isn't Stephanie. All mildly soft-core photos on this page are courtesy of the Cemberlitas Hamam.

ISTANBUL – If you ever need to detox, a Turkish hamam is an excellent place to do it. After touring, flying, haggling, drinking, and dancing my body needed a little rejuvenating. The fellas left this morning, which was a total letdown, and I had the day to myself. By "day," I mean I got out of bed at noon. 

My first trip was to the Istanbul Modern, where the art is extremely provocative and the guards are very strict. I tried to take a photo of a painting, and I thought they were going to kick me out. There are some really talented Turkish artists, all of whom appear to be under 40. And, boy, do they love a video installation; the entire lower level was given over to an exhibit called Paradise Lost. The short film of a mountain lion tearing up a motel room is a standout, as is the photo essay of sex dolls dressed like religious penitents. The museum has a great terrace cafe where I read my guidebook and had lunch. The only drawback was the ginormous cruise ship parked right in front of the museum blocking the whole view of the Bosphorus. Move, dammit.

After a few hours at the museum I took a taxi (taksi) to the Cemberlitas Hamam in the old town. It was constructed in the 16th century and the architecture is incredible. At its core there is a huge marble wet room — round with a giant domed ceiling and carved basins, drains, and steps around the perimeter. There is a small room through a dark arch that contains two deep plunge pools. The ceiling has star-shaped skylights, and between the lighting, the steam, and the flesh, it's pretty sexy. You can see why they segregate the men and women.

Cemberlitas Hamam

Cemberlitas Hamam

Cemberlitas Hamam

After a few confusing exchanges with the ladies' attendant, I figured out where the locker room was and dutifully stripped down. You are issued a hamam towel (which is more like a short, thick, cotton sheet than a regular towel), an exfoliating mitt, and tokens for each treatment you buy. You hand in the tokens as you progress from room to room. It works like this: You strip to your undies (men go naked) and go into the main bathing room, where a huge octagonal marble slab in the middle slopes gently down towards you. You put your hamam towel on any spot you like on the slab and take a little rest.

Cemberlitas Hamam

Cemberlitas Hamam

It's pretty steamy in there, and there are two or three strong old gals (topless or in very athletic two-piece suits) who are going to scrub you down. When your turn is up, they tap you on the shoulder and arrange you face-down on your towel. Then they take the exfoliating towel and buckets and buckets of warm water from the taps along the wall and SCRUB you down. Then they soap you up like it's a super car wash. Rinse, repeat. The towel functions like a damp paper towel under a cutting board: You don't slide around too much.

The last step is a vigorous hair washing. The nice lady leads you to one of the marble basins along the perimeter and sits you on a step. You close your eyes and gallons of water and a mysterious coconut shampoo later, you're done. After that, it's the hot or medium plunge followed by a short wait in the ante-room to the hamam waiting to be called for your 20-minute oil massage. The massage is in a group room and is very energetic. You shower in the stall next door and you're done. Wearing your towel and plastic shoes, you can enjoy tea and fresh-squeezed juice in the lounge or you can change and leave. Naturally, I chose refreshments. 

It's fabulous. More workhorse than a spa but you cannot beat that setting. I wish I could do it every week.

Now I am watching the second giant Turkish wedding in 24 hours on the hotel terrace and having some very average meze. Side note: If you have a nut allergy, do not come to Turkey. You will die. They practically put walnuts in the toothpaste. 

I really miss the guys, and I know Chris would have much preferred the centerpieces from tonight's wedding. He really hated yesterday's. Also we could crash this one. Last night we got back too late for that.

Tomorrow is Cappadocia and the caves.

Stephanie, a Fathom contributing editor, is an actor, activist, and chronic wanderer. You can follow her at @marchstephanie on Twitter and Instagram. She travels for the sheer animal pleasure of seeing something new.

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