I suppose I should preface this by saying that I am generally not a spa-inclined person. I’ve gotten the occasional pedicure while on vacation, and in Cambodia it was hard to pass up a $15 beach massage, but it’s certainly not a regular thing for me to do, and, for the most part, I go without a lot of the fancy stuff. This proved quite the experience, though, and I may try to find a way to make hamams a regular part of my routine here, because the couple hours I spent at this particular one were really great and left me feeling very much like a new woman!
I arrived in Cappadocia from Olympos in something of a zombified state: I’d taken my first ever overnight bus to get there, and while it was half empty and about as comfortable as a bus can be, the ride was a sleepless one. We pulled in to the Cappadocia station a little after 7am, and in the early morning the area appeared to be little more than a ghost town, with the famous mountains and fairy chimneys rising silent and mysteriously above the little cafes and shops and hotels.
I found an attendant to help direct me to my hotel, which was thankfully just a few blocks away. My room wouldn’t be ready for another several hours, and the day was a free one with no tours or obligations on my part, so I had a little breakfast, did some emailing, and then went for a walk, not knowing how I would spend the day or what I’d be able to find in town.
My walk was a nice one: the town was actually pretty large and interesting, and I was out before the heat or many other tourists. Once I’d made a full circle, though, not nearly enough of the day had passed, and I wondered what I would do with the rest of the afternoon. As I headed back to my hotel, I passed by a courtyard with some restaurants, shops, and… a hamam, or, Turkish bath. I decided to at least check out the prices, so I went inside, and a man greeted me excitedly and showed me a menu of services, ranging from the traditional experience to massages, facials, and salon treatments.
“Do I need anything?” I asked. I wasn’t exactly sure what the experience would entail.
He shrugged. “No, nothing. You have a bikini?”
I’d left my bags in my hotel’s lobby. “Do I need one? I can get one quickly.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “We will provide you with traditional robes. Some women like to wear a bikini, but you don’t need one.”
Assured that I’d be provided for, I looked through the menu and chose the traditional treatment (mud mask, sauna, shower, massage, swimming pool, and steam room) and added on an hour-long oil massage. I was given a key to a locker, and on the ring the manager placed various tokens indicating what I’d paid for. He directed me to a flight of stairs: up was the men’s floor, down was the women’s. I descended, gazing at the fancy floor-to-ceiling tiles, and was met by a sweet elderly attendant who handed me a towel and a pair of slippers that were far too small. She was all smiles and excitement as she ushered me into the locker room.
“Change!” she urged, but I was unsure of what exactly I should change in to… or out of.
“Everything?” I asked.
“Bikini?” she replied.
I became a little wary. “No,” I said, “I was told that I didn’t need one.”
“Okay, okay. Use this,” she said, pointing the towel.
“Take off everything?” I asked again.
She smiled and laughed. Obviously I had never done this before. “It’s okay! Everything!” She turned and left me alone in the locker room.
And so, I changed. I took off everything, wrapped myself in the towel (which was quite short), stuffed my feet into the tiny slippers, and locked my belongings in the locker. I peeked out to see attendants bustling about, wearing bathing suits, sweating, cleaning, working hard and moving fast. One of them directed me to sit in a little lobby area, where there was apple tea and magazines to keep me occupied. I was alone (first customer of the day, I think), and sat for a while before several other women started filling up the seats. An attendant came by and painted my face with mud before taking me to the sauna, where I would sit for 20 minutes to loosen up and get my sweat on.
The other women joined me there, some foreign, some Turkish, but all in bathing suits. I began to worry about not having one myself, and started to feel a little silly sitting there trying to keep my towel tucked tight around me while these women were able to move freely without fear of flashing any of their bits and pieces.
After the sauna, we moved into the shower room so we could wash off the sweat and mud mask before getting our traditional massage. There were quite a few other women who’d caught up to me at that point, so the vaulted, marbled hot room was pretty full. Around the outside of the chamber were sinks and basins for washing, and in the center was a heated slab where I would lay to receive my massage. An attendant came over to me and directed me to where I should lay, along with several other women. I tightened my towel. She put down a pillow for my head and went to get some hot water from the surrounding taps.
I sat on the edge of the slab, gazing around the room, excited to see what would happen next. When my attendant returned, she indicated silently that I should stand up. I did, and before I knew what was happening, she reached for the little knot on my towel and pulled. “No bikini!” I started to say, but with a flick of her wrist, the whole towel fell away, leaving me – and my bits and pieces – completely exposed to the entire room. I stiffened and stood there with my mouth open, frozen as if standing still somehow made me invisible, or, at least, not naked. She prepped the massage area and turned to me. She must have seen my shocked expression.
“Okay?” she asked, smiling.
My embarrassment had made the room even hotter. I could only chuckle and shrug it off. “Yes..?”
She laughed and directed me to lay down, which I did awkwardly while trying to hide as much of myself as I could. When I looked around, though, apart from the occasional glance my way, no one in the room seemed to care about my stark nakedness as much as I did. As my massage progressed, I noticed that many other women eventually went topless themselves, and it didn’t take long for me to lighten up. Sure, I was the only one who was completely naked, but no one cared, we were all women anyway, and I’d never see any of them again. So I closed my eyes, relaxed my body, and let my masseuse work her magic, which included lots of delightful scrubbing with a soap-filled net, and lots of not-so-delightful splashes with cold water (and that’s an important thing to note about hamams: you will be perpetually soaked).
A few minutes into the massage, I heard a rhythmic banging like someone was playing a drum. I looked around and saw that, indeed, someone was, and that the women around her had started to clap and dance. Then the attendants started. Women began climbing up on the central table, dancing and chanting to the beat. My masseuse left me to join them in the center of the slab, urging me to join her, but in my nakedness I declined, and just kind of stared up at them, wondering what the hell was going on. For several minutes the room turned wild, full of a loud beat, with women moving and singing in bare-breasted glory, young and old, big and small. I’m still not at all sure what it was about, but it was quite the spectacle, and an empowering one at that. Like a Sisterhood of the Hamam.
The beat eventually died down and was followed by much cheering, after which my masseuse continued with my service. When she finished, my towel was returned to me, and I moved into the swimming pool before returning to the waiting room where I’d started. An attendant came over to check the tokens on my locker key and took me to a private room for my oil massage. The hour moved gloriously slowly, and there were times when I had to tell myself, “No pain, no gain,” but for the most part it all felt absolutely wonderful and slippery and fantastic, and I left feeling very much renewed.
After changing, I ascended the stairs feeling like I’d returned from an adventure of the unknown. In fact, I was a little sad that it was all over, but I suppose that’s all the more reason to seek out some hamams in Istanbul! I’ll certainly let you know when I do.
I’ll post photos from my Cappadocia tours soon. In the meantime, all my love!