Posts Tagged With: Istanbul

A Hammam How-To: Or, Get Ready to Relax


Today I have been tired and kind of sleepy.  For some reason, today I’ve also wished that I could be transported to a genuine hammam.  It’s been that kind of day.

“Turkish bath” conjures up all sorts of images, not all pleasant.  But the very word hammam instantly lulls me — maybe it’s the ah sounds and the mmm sounds.  I mean, put your lips together and say “mmm” and feel the vibrations.  It’s like humming.  In fact, if I think about it, maybe I can just use the word hammam as a mantra.

I’d read about hammams, but never had the opportunity to try out out.  Not until I first visited Istanbul in 2005.  In the few short days I was there, I knew that I wanted to try one out.  I mentioned this to a friend who was also there, and he talked to some Turkish friends of his.  Thus my initiation into the joys of the hammam is forever tied to Istanbul.  The guys made the appointment for me, somewhere in the Beyoglou neighborhood (where Taksim Square is).  I don’t remember the name of it, if I ever knew it. But oh, what a lovely experience.

First of all, it wasn’t a tourist place.  This is where ordinary residents of the city went.  I remember walking in and no one speaking English.  I just sort of followed where I was led.  Gestures talked rather than words.  

My second experience was in Amman, Jordan, last year.  By the time I landed there, I’d read a lot and found the Ali-Pasha Turkish Bath was where I wanted to go.  The hotel concierge made the arrangements.  This time I took a taxi, clutching in my hand the addresses (in Arabic) for the hammam and for the hotel, for the taxi driver.  Sadly, the taxi driver was almost as lost as I was.  He ended up dropping me off in the area near the hammam, and I found it pretty soon.  The sign wasn’t noticeable, and the entrance was a bit off the street.  

Most recently, I was in Istanbul again, and once more made sure that I had hammam time.  The hotel concierge made the reservations for late one night, following a visit to the Whirling Dervishes.  

The hammam experience is a ritual for many people.  Again, I was fortunate to go to non-touristy places, places where “real” people go.  

The whole “Turkish bath” thing became popular in the West during the Victorian era as a way of cleansing and relaxing.  Though part of Islamic culture, the hammam is clearly related to ancient Greek and Roman bathing practices.  Some of the most famous hammams in Turkey and Jordan date to the 14th and 15th centuries.  Often the hammams were built as part of a mosque complex.  The architecture can be a clue to this since many hammams have domes similar to mosques.  

Typically when you enter a hammam, expect three interconnected rooms:  the hot room, a room that is steamy from hot water running under and around a raised, round marble structure; a warm room; and a cool room.  There will also be showers and a steam room and maybe a sauna as well as a hot pool.  You’ll be led between areas.  There will often be a domed ceiling with small round windows that let light in. The room may well be steamy and darkened, so that the light is diffused and soft.  

I’ve read that such a dome is often in the cool room, but the three hammams I’ve been to had the dome with the hot room.  There I’d lie, basically naked, on a very warm marble stone (sometimes called a tummy stone) at the center of the room.  Here I was allowed to lie long enough to work up a complete sweat.  Then came a scrub massage.  Indeed, at the first hammam I went to this was more akin to being scrubbed with a Brillo pad.  Basically, you’re exfoliated.  And cleaned.  Shallow bowls of hot water — many of them– are poured over you.  Just remember to get into the rhythm of the person pouring the water, so that you don’t breathe in just as another bowlful is sluiced over your head.  

From there, I usually was led to showers in the warm room to rinse off and shampoo.  Then it was time to soak in the pool, often with some cool refreshment, maybe a citrusy drink.  In Amman, at the Ali Pasha hammam, I then went into the steam room, which was tiled and slippery and scared me.  I could just see myself slipping and crashing onto the tiles in the darkened annex.  Rubber-soled flip-flops helped, but I still made sure to move slowly and try to hold on to something that generally was too slick for a firm grasp.  

Back to the showers, to the warm room.  Then the pool again.  Then the sauna.  Then the showers.  Then a massage, with me on a warm marble table.  

The Ali Pasha hammam had all of these things going on in areas of the same domed room.  In Istanbul, though, there were separate rooms, though these were connected. 

After the massage, each time I showered and dressed and relaxed more in a small room where I had tea.  The hot tea and the cool room were perfect follow-ups to the steam and hot marble.  In Istanbul, though, this year, there wasn’t any tea at the end because I was there so late.

In most hammams, men and women do not bathe together.  In fact, there are often separate hours for men and for women.  In the hammam I went to this year, though, there were two separate parts of the hammam, one for men and one for women.

All I know is that when I’m done, I’m incredibly relaxed.  I’m warm, glowing, and feel as though I have no bones.  No knots in my shoulders or under my shoulder blades can survive a true hammam experience.  At various points I fall asleep, only to be awakened by someone turning me over or scrubbing or sluicing me with water.  

By the time I get back to my hotel room after a couple of hours at a hammam, I’m pretty much done.  At that point, all I really want to do is slip into my pjs and crawl between crisp clean sheets and go to sleep.

For some reason, I have no photographs of the hammams I’ve been to.  That’s probably because I was fully occupied and there was no room to carry a camera.  In addition, the steam probably wouldn’t be too great with most cameras.

Just to give you a sense of what a hammam is like, let me link you to the Cemberlitas Hammam in Istanbul, which is the hammam I used in July.  This is a historic hammam dating to 1584.  Look here:

You can see what different areas look like.  The photo I included above is from this website, since I didn’t have any photos that I took.

In 2005 when I was done with the hammam and met my friends at a bar around the corner, I wanted a glass of wine.  I also announced that I wanted to live there.  In a hammam.

It’s not for everyone, I know.  If you’re shy, wear a swimsuit.  You don’t have to strip.  Modesty is obviously not something that most women there worry about.  There’s nothing sexual about the nudity.  Not at all.  In fact, no one seems to notice.  The women are chatting and visiting.  Apparently a lot of times friends go together for their version of what I call “Lady Day.”  It’s a weekly ritual for a lot of people.  

I don’t have any idea what it’s like for men, obviously.  You’d have to ask my friend who went to Istanbul with me this year; I made him try it.  When we left, he just shook his head and mumbled something.  

As for me, I’m hooked.  I just wish there were a hammam — an authentic one — somewhere near here.  

Oh well.  There isn’t.  What I’ll do instead tonight, as soon as I post this, is draw a very hot bath in my claw-foot bathtub.  I’ll light a couple of candles.  Put on some music.  Pour a glass of wine.  And soak.

It’s not a hammam, true.  But I can close my eyes and pretend, right?

Maybe I’ll wait until it’s dark.  The ambience, you know?





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Bazaar Experiences in Istanbul

Shopping in Istanbul can be overwhelming, whether you are wandering on your own or being herded on group tours.  If you’re wandering, you can spend more time and simply immerse yourself in the experiences.  Many of us, though, are in Istanbul for short periods of time and are hustled through on a time schedule.  Central to any Istanbul visit, though, is some time in three major bazaars in the old neighborhoods of Istanbul.  Two are covered bazaars; one is a shop-lined street bazaar.

Join me as I try to give you a taste of each of these.

The Grand Bazaar

Entrance to Grand Bazaar

Entrance to Grand Bazaar

Cheryl at the Grand Bazaar

Cheryl at the Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazzar

In the Grand Bazzar

In June this year, though, I had even less time.  I was on a day-tour, and when we stopped at the Grand Bazaar area, we were hustled into a “shopping mall” first — and spent far too much time in the main carpet area being instructed on carpets.  It was interesting, but we were also being targeted as potential buyers.  I’ve been in carpet stores before and while this one was interesting, it meant that by the time I walked three or four blocks to the Grand Bazaar itself, all I really had time for was a quick entry into the main gate, a glance around, and a quick exit.  Clearly, I need much more time.

How much time, you might wonder?  Well, consider the facts about this bazaar.  It’s not known as The Grand Bazaar without reason.  Construction began in 1455.  It is one of the largest — and oldest– covered markets in the world.  In its 60 or 61 covered streets lie over 3000 shops (some sources peg the number at 5000).  Once this was also home to master craftsmen who demonstrated their various trades — metalworking, jewelry-making, weaving, and the like.  That’s no longer really there, sadly.  And many of the shops are filled with tourist tacky items, often made in China. There are some good recommendations from various guidebooks, but with a limited amount of time, you really don’t have time to spend searching these out.  Only tonight I found that The Grand Bazaar has its own website:  grand

So my true adventure in this most famous of Istanbul’s bazaars lies in the future.  Possibly next trip to Athens, I hope;  I’m tentatively planning on flying there through Istanbul, with a stopover.

The Spice Bazaar/Egyptian Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar

The second largest covered bazaar (after The Grand Bazaar), the Spice Market is in Fatih in the Eimonu neighborhood.  It’s a 17th century structure, with 88 vaulted rooms (with upper and lower storeys).  Unlike The Grand Bazaar, it’s open 7 days a week.

Perfume Oils

Perfume Oils

Teas to Choose

Teas to Choose

Spices of Many Colors

Spices of Many Colors

The Spice Bazaar was on my must-see list, and I did get to spend 45 minutes there — far too short a time, once more.  But that was because I found one lovely shop (Aladdin’s) near the main entrance and blew much money there, buying perfume oils, spices (particularly saffron), and teas (oh my, the variety).  Happily, I paid my small fortune, left the store, wandered a bit, and then exited to sit on the step right outside the bazaar.  Be aware that buying saffron can be tricky.  Be sure you’re getting the real thing.  Any number of travel websites about spice shopping here warn that often, if the price seems really too good to be true for saffron, it’s probably not really saffron, but another spice such as turmeric. Spend some time searching online for advice and warnings about shopping for saffron in Istanbul.

Near the main entrance is the Yeni Mosque is a great place for observing everyday life.  Besides the tourists shopping there, you’ll see locals as well, wandering with traditional clothing as well as modern adaptations.  The Spice Bazaar is on a large street and across from the entrance is the Bosphorus.  You can get a bite to eat from any of a number of street vendors, sit, and spend lots of time people-watching.


And Modern Dress

And Modern Dress

The Blend of Traditional Dress and Modern Technology

The Blend of Traditional Dress and Modern Technology


Arasta Bazaar — near the Blue Mosque

Entering the Arasta Bazzar

The third bazaar is much smaller and easier to navigate.  Situated two blocks behind the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Sultanahmet Mosque, built between 1609-1616), this bazaar also has its own website:

It even has a map with the shops named.  Having spent time online and with guidebooks, I knew there were a couple of particular shops I wanted to spend time in.  Another couple were lagniappe (Cajun for “extra), serendipitous finds that I am glad I wandered in.  One interest of mine is traditional Turkish weaving and fabrics, especially the pestamels, the kind of towels you get in many Turkish hammams (or baths).  Jennifer’s Hamam was one of my targeted stops, and well worth the time.  The store is one of two (there’s one in The Grand Bazaar) owned by a Canadian who sources her work from traditional weavers.  I bought several pestamels,  a beautiful blue silk scarf, and some other cotton items.  Jennifer was there and happily spent a lot of time with me, showing me different types of towels, different sizes and qualities of pestamels and matching hand towels, huge towels, bedspreads, and even bathrobes.  She also told me how she has built her business, finding traditional weavers and helping to re-build the dwindling numbers of trained weavers.  Her dream, she told me, is to create a handicraft collective, complete with a school so that the various associated crafts will not die out.  Jennifer does have a website, if you’re interested:

Jennifer's Hamam

Jennifer’s Hamam

Inside Jennifer's Hamam

Inside Jennifer’s Hamam

When I mentioned that I was also interested in buying a rug, she led my friend Seth and me through the bazaar, out of it, and to a nearby street to a very nice store (the 5K store), where I bought an old camel bag/camel rug.  Folded up, it functioned as a kind of saddle bag, specifically for using on a camel.  Though it looks like a patchwork of different rugs, it is actually a single rug, woven on a single loom, switching techniques.  For now, it’s living on the sleeper couch in my apartment in Athens.

A Camel Bag as Rug

A Camel Bag as Rug

Besides Jennifer’s Hamam, I also shopped for scarves and hand-woven fabric.  I ended up with a beautiful shawl, several scarves, and an early 20th century textile that can be a wall hanging or a bracelet.

More Scarves in the Arasta BazaarScarves and More in Araasta Bazaar

The store that surprised me, though, was one that sold illuminated manuscripts.  How could you not be drawn in by the window display?

For Illustrated Manuscripts -- Arasta Bazaar

This bazaar was also walking distance from the small hotel where I stayed, in Sultanamet district, perhaps two or three blocks away.  Since it was so close, I actually visited here a couple of times.  It’s also on my “must-return” list.

Though I didn’t go beyond these bazaars, there are apparently daily markets that are worth exploring.  I have already bookmarked a website about these (and the three bazaars I’ve talked about):

Yes, Istanbul is a fascinating city.  I will go back, and back yet more times.  Other posts will explore different places and experiences, but since Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, or as my Greek friends still refer to it, Constantinoupoli) has been a port city where many trade routes crossed, it has long been known for its handicrafts and shopping.

I’d still like to find actual fabrics, traditionally woven cottons and silks that can be bought by the meter.  And I didn’t even look at jewelry this time.  Lord, watch out when that happens!

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