The driving force getting me through the Archeology Museum was that afterwards I was going straight to a turkish bath: The Çemberlitas Hamam. Ok, ok, the archeology museum wasn’t all that bad. The sculptures that we saw were pretty incredible, especially the detailed reliefs on the tombs that were unearthed oh so long ago. There were also some really great explanations about the history of not only the Hagia Sophia, but Constantine’s reign and more. Many rooms were closed due to what looked like reorganization, but it was still interesting to walk through and there was more tile work to envy, which of course made me almost as happy as getting scrubbed by a scantily clad Turkish woman in the bathhouse.
Now, about this hamam: Çemberlitas is rather famous on the tourist hamam circuit. I figured, as I was going by myself (Juliet had to work) it probably was a good idea to go ahead and go to one that welcomed tourists and held their hand a bit as they attempted to navigate a Turkish bath house for the first time. Sidenote: this wasn’t my first Turkish bathhouse, but it WAS my first time doing it solo. Also, I knew it was going to be on the pricey side, but it was a bit of a reward after Africa and I figured my legs (and feet especially) could use a good massage and soak in the hot bath after walking around so much!
I should also disclose that I am a huge (HUGE) fan of the jimjilbang (Korean bath house) and I would go as often as I could when I lived in Seoul. I’d go alone or with friends, and I would readily strip down to my birthday suit, order an iced green tea, and tell the nearest ajjumma (Korean speak for old woman) working in the bath house that I wanted to be scrubbed down. In Korea, what I call “the ajjumma scrub” is when you climb on a table and an ajjumma scrubs you down with what feels like a brillo pad for what feels like an hour (maybe it’s only 30-40 minutes in reality) peeling off dead skin in all (and I mean ALL) of your nooks and crannies. These ajjummas don’t mess around. Arms are lifted over your head. Legs are spread. Feet are tickled. Behind the ears are rubbed raw.
After your scrub, warm water is poured over you, rinsing the piles of dead skin (yea, that part is gross) away and then you’re soaped down, massaged and shampooed if you want, rinsed off, and patted on the bum when you’re done. Your entire body is as smooth as a baby’s behind, maybe a bit red at first, but you just feel clean and fresh and rejuvenated.
It’s one of my most favorite things in the whole wide world. (Andrew assures me it’s not one of his most favorite things. That “it’s different” for men, but I’m not buying it. I firmly believe I would love it just as much if I were a dude.)
I wasn’t expecting the same in Turkey, but I was expecting something that put up a good fight. An experience that would make me feel like I had to choose between Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies and a Mint Magnum ice cream bar. (That. would be tough, am I right?)
But as soon as I stepped foot in the bath house, I knew things were going to be different. There were private changing rooms. I was given a pair of underpants to change into AND a towel to wrap around me. I wondered how I was going to be scrubbed down with a towel around me. How are my nooks and crannies going to be attended to if I have a pair of underpants on? Are the Turks more modest than the Koreans? And then I stepped foot in the inner steamy bath house. My guide, clad in only a bra and underwear pealed my towel off of me before I stepped out of my sandals and pointed to the marble slab miming for me to go to sleep. My spirits lifted and I looked forward to steaming myself in my almost birthday suit and my first Turkish scrub.
The marble octagon shaped slab was lined with women laying on their towels. I straightened out my towel and stretched out, melting into the warm marble. When I rolled over, the woman next to me on the slab was being covered in suds. Not just a few bubbles. She was covered in so much soapiness, her body disappeared into a blob and the Turkish attendant’s arms were lost as she massaged the body underneath. It looked fantastic.
Before I knew it, it was my turn.
The Turkish woman poured lukewarm over me without warning and went to work scrubbing. It wasn’t nearly as rough as the brillo-like ajjumma scrub. It wasn’t nearly as thorough or as long either. It was nice, but it felt rushed and made me wonder how many more layers of dead skin she could have peeled off if she had kept going for a little while. I just spent three months in Africa! I kinda expected (and wanted) to be rubbed raw (like I would be if I were in Korea). I was flipped over. Rinsed off. Then it was my turn to disappear under a mountain of soapiness. Ajjummas, take note. Being enveloped in so much soapy goodness will make any bath house better. I was massaged, albeit a bit quickly, and then told to stand.
A new woman to the marble slab looked up at me in wonder. I raised my eyebrow at her with smile, knowing full well I looked like a soap monster. She smiled and then I was whisked into a smaller chamber and sat down next to a fountain of water where my hair was shampooed and then I was rinsed so repetitively I had to time catching and holding my breath before another bucket of water was dumped over me. It was more comical than annoying. Suddenly it was all over and the baths were pointed out to me in another side chamber.
All in all, it was delightful, but it felt rushed. Maybe because it’s on the tourist beat, or maybe it was just a busy day. I wanted to climb back onto the marble to relax for a bit longer, but there wasn’t any room. Instead, I alternated dips in the warm and cool pools until I was pruney. I tried not to think about how much I spent on the experience, concentrating on the fact that it was a learning one and I could be more confident going into smaller hamams on my own in the future without feeling out of place. But I can’t say that I didn’t cringe when I saw the prices at a smaller hamam outside of Istanbul. It was only half the price. At least I know I’ll be able to afford to sneak off to a hamam more than once more before we leave Turkey!