A Turkish treat for two – a traditional hammam

April 23rd, 2010 in European travel by Sarah Lee 3
A traditional Turkish hammam

Yesterday we wrote about our experiences of a Turkish hammam in a five-star hotel in Antalya. As wonderful as it was we all know five-star hotels are not the most likely place for an authentic experience. So we decided to try a traditional hammam in Antalya’s old town for size.

To step into Kalieci, Antalya’s old town, is to head back to the days of the Ottoman Empire – it is huddled with gorgeous white-walled buildings with wooden window shutters and brown tiled roofs.

Though it attracts many tourists now, it’s not over-run, and places like these are havens for traditional experiences. So we ducked the heat of the afternoon to visit the Balik Pazari Hammam. The immediate difference between the Sheraton Voyager’s hammam and this one being the fact that this was far from mixed sex. There were separate doors to the male and female baths. So Terry and I split up – his experience of the bath follows my description here.

The women working at the bath had a rather joyless look to them and the language barrier was greater at the hammam than the hotel. But I was soon put at ease by my masseuse and her unique way of communicating: “There baby,” she soothed. Then: “Sleep baby,” as she left me alone under the dome of the huge heated bath. I giggled and guessed that meant I was supposed to relax and let the steam open my pores for a few minutes.

The odd drip of water into the marble basins of the bath echoed around it’s 700-year-old walls as I looked up at the ornate ceiling through which tiny square windows allowed in chinks of light from outside.

When she returned ten minutes later the masseuse threw bowls full of water over me and dragged me across the heated slab to bring me closer to her with another “There baby”. Again I could help but laugh a little at the randomness of it all and she smiled, pleased that she’d entertained me.

After the intense peel and wash down came the soap massage. It may not have been as entertaining as at the Sheraton, but it was perhaps more vigorous as my stockily-built masseuse grappled my flesh in something of a heavy-duty workout. There was a certain rough and readiness about this massage compared with the five-star but it was no less enjoyable. Washing the soap off, she then washed my face and shampooed my hair and I was struck by the intimate nature of the experience – other spas I’ve been to leave you to wash your face yourself.

An invigorating massage with an aromatic oil followed before I was led out of the bath with an “Ok, baby” into the beautifully tiled waiting area, given a cup of herbal tea and told to sit and relax, allowing my body temperature to regulate itself once more.

For an extra charge (approx €2) I had a face mask applied, which I gathered was from a clay naturally found in Turkey, by an older rather matronly lady. As I sat with my masseuse and matronly-face-mask-lady waiting for it to dry they popped open a tupperware box and insisted I share some fresh cherries with them.

Given these extras Terry finished his treatment before me and was waiting outside when I stepped into the early evening sunshine feeling as fresh as a daisy.

Terry enjoys a time-honoured tradition

I’d thought visiting a traditional Turkish hammam would mean enjoying a centuries-old experience in medieval surroundings but my initial impressions were of the 1970s as I entered a neat but dated waiting area.  This was reinforced by the heavily moustached masseur, reminiscent of a member of the Village People, who guided me to a small wood-panelled room.

I changed and wrapped a short towel around my waist. My masseur then appeared also dressed in just a small towel and I could see the rest of him was as hairy as his top lip.

As we passed through a heavy wooden door into the hammam itself I was transported back to an environment unchanged for centuries – the white walls of the bath were inlaid with aged marble that told of the thousands that had visited before me. As I lay under the ancient dome of the steam room my pores began to open and my eyes began to close. After a while my masseur returned and took me to a side room where he exfoliated me for all he was worth. Next he threw bowls of warm water over me before starting the soapy massage. I closed my eyes as the suds engulfed me and this mammoth of a man worked my muscles with a firm but gentle pressure.

No words were spoken but I felt comfortable and at ease. As he finished the soap massage he sat me up and again threw warm water over me. I wasn’t ready this time and spluttered as a considerable amount went into my mouth. After checking I’d live he sat down and spoke, in perfect English, about the history of the hammam.

He voiced his fears about the threat to its future posed by the new luxury hotels which offered similar treatments but in more convenient locations and glittering surrounds. Many established hammams have closed over the years and it was clear an ancient way of life hung in the balance.

Having tried a Turkish bath at both a luxury hotel and a traditional hammam there is much to recommend each, but it seems the new may well decimate the old. This would be a crying shame but as we’ve seen far too often progress has little respect for our rich history.

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