Imagine dozens of half-naked women scrubbing each other's bodies head to toe from inside a hot, steamy room of cool, white marble. They scoop crystal clear mineral water from centuries old marble basins and pour the healing liquid over their heads and shoulders. Soapy suds drip down their bodies and their slippery, freshly scrubbed skin. The women gather to gossip and laugh as clouds of moist steam penetrates their pores and rejuvenates their senses.
Sounds sexy, right? Hmmmm…..
- The Private Bath
Instead of visiting one of the many midcentric tourist bathhouses that Istanbul has to offer, my Turkish friend, Mehpare, offered to take me to a local Turkish bathhouse for a more authentic experience. We traveled an hour and a half by ferry from Istanbul to her family's hometown of Bursa.
As the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa is now a sprawling metropolis on the Anatolian side of Turkey, just south of the Sea of Marmara. Bursa itself proved to be an interesting city with its thriving maze of ancient bazaar market places, full of vendors that sell everything from spices to wedding dresses, intermingled with tea shops and outdoor hookah cafes. The historical monuments and classical architecture are observed in Bursa's intricately decorated doorway and window arches to the everlasting quality of stone castle walls.
The hotel we stayed at was connected to a bathhouse called Karamustafa Kaplicalan. For two people, the room cost thirty dollars a night and allowed us access to both the public and private baths. After touring the city, we decided to make use of the private baths.
Each private bath had two rooms. One room was for changing and included a massage table, which I used to lay on in order to cool off. The other room had a large, rectangular shaped, stone bathtub large enough to accommodate two people, as well as a marble basin found in one corner. The water can be easily adjusted for comfort. I turned on the hot water and filled the room with steam. I sweat out the toxins as the bathwater cooled, then climbed inside the tub to soak in the purifying mineral water.
Tips: Although the private bathtubs are designed for two people, I'm not sure about the policy on sexy time. I imagine it'd be fine so long as you stayed quiet – who's going to know, right? It might be a good idea to bring some music, although the acoustics in the room are great if you are weird like me and like to sing in the bathtub. Perhaps a book or a movie might be nice, too, but sometimes quiet and solidarity can be the most relaxing.
- The Public Bath
The following day, Mehpare and I enjoyed Turkish coffee in a nearby park, where friends and families gathered to smoke shisha and play board games surrounded by cats in the morning sunshine. This was followed by a trip to the public baths. As we approached Karamustafa Kaplicalan, steam erupted from the roof like an active volcano. The walls, floors, and ceilings were all made of cool, white marble. The rooms were lined with large marble wash basins, as dozens of women relaxed wearing nothing but bikini bottoms. Some women lay upon the marble benches, as other women scrubbed them down with great intensity. It was a lot like the scene I set at the beginning, except I neglected to mention that the majority of the women were age sixty-five or older.
"Turkish baths are a traditional thing," Mehpare explained, "Not many young people go anymore. Turkish Baths are not at all hip – they are considered to be somewhere our grandparents go." She went on to explain how some doctors prescribed visits to the Turkish Baths for various medical conditions, from arthritis to herniated discs. That explained why a lot of women were not in the best shape, and watching a bunch of half-naked women scrub one another was not exactly the scene from a stag film that one might imagine.
At first, I wore my bikini, as I initially did not want to go topless. I was slightly uncomfortable, and a bit plagued by my American nudiphobia. This would be cured, though, by the time I went for my massage. All of the women at the bathhouse were totally topless. It was normal practice to be almost nude.
I sat down next to a wash basin in the corner and started to reach for the faucet, when an elderly woman rushed forward and pushed me out of the way. Mehpare explained that a lot of the older ladies were regulars at the public bathhouse, and got pushy when new people interrupted their routine. This included their usual "spots". They were quite territorial. It was fine, we just moved to another basin.
Mehpare sat beneath a flowing fountain, allowing the water to massage her shoulders. Another older woman began hovering next to her, glaring jealously, obvious annoyed that my friend was using the fountain.
Mehpare allowed me to try by letting me slip in quickly. We had to sit shoulder to shoulder, then she quickly squeezed forward as I slid over quickly enough to take over the spot. The older woman decided to lean over me in an attempt take over the fountain, putting her body in the way of the stream. She dangled her large, sagging breasts on top of my head. I almost gagged. They were like long, hanging, wrinkly udders right in my face. Except when I'm bathing, I swear I'll never go braless again. So freaked out was I that I instantly jumped forward, allowing the woman to take over the fountain. She smiled in victory.
Mehpare was disappointed that I'd given up so quickly, but the physical contact of the situation was uncomfortable for me. The experience still gives me goose bumps. I don't care how young or old you are, or how perky or saggy they happen to be: I'm asking the women of the world not to rest their breasts on my head unless I ask them to, thanks.
The pool was beautifully constructed with tall, arched ceilings and an open air sun roof that allowed sunlight to stream upon the warm water's surface. When we arrived, we were told that everyone was required to wear hair caps in the pool. However, it was obvious that some women thought they were exempt from this rule. As I swam, long grey and dark hairs got caught between my fingers and toes. Again, I almost gagged. I looked around at all the senior aged women with their hair completely exposed. There were even young children in the pool without swim diapers. I decided that I'd had enough communal bathing au naturel. I got out pretty quickly and sat on a bench, waiting for my friend to finish her swim.
"Are you done observing the public baths?" asked my friend, laughing, as I can only imagine the expression that must have been on my face as I pulled other people's long lost hairs off my body and gazed upon the scene that was unfolding around me.
"God, yes," I replied. I won't go into too much descriptive detail about what it was like to watch a bunch of maturing, out-of-shape individuals (because I'm sure it's just as bad at the men's bathhouse, perhaps even worse) scrub one another, skin rippling, stretch marks stretching...It forces me to face the truth of my own aging body and that's a tough pill to swallow.
For literary purposes, I'd rather let you retain the fantasy of my introduction. That is, if there is any left that hasn't already been dissolved by the reality that we don't all look like porn stars.
- The Massage
The Turkish Bathhouse experience was redeemed once we moved to the massage waiting area, a separate steam room with more baths and wash basins. The dry sauna was so hot; I couldn't take the heat any longer. I sat in a warm tub with my head beneath a constant stream of cold water. I was in queue for a scrub and soap massage, which cost eleven dollars for about twenty minutes. A tall, young Turkish woman with blonde hair in a bikini called my name and brought me to another room. She laid my plaid covering cloth across a large table and instructed that I lie on my stomach. My friend had warned me that the scrub and massage would be hard, but I still don't think they were hard enough. My friend had never experienced Thai massage, which in my opinion, is a lot more intense in comparison to Turkish.
The biggest difference between massages in Thailand and Turkey is the environment. While Thai massages take place in a dry environment while wearing loose fit clothing, the Turkish scrub and soap massages took place in a damp, steamy room while I was nearly naked. The masseuse started with scrubbing my back, which felt amazing. She then pulled my bikini bottoms into a wedgie so that she could scrub my butt cheeks and every inch of my body with a loofah that fit around the palm of her hand. Giant clumps of dead skin gathered and fell from the exhausted loofah. She scrubbed my feet, my face, my chest, everything.
I was then instructed to return to the waiting area to rest and steam. I used a scooper and basin to rinse the countless clumps of dead skin off of my body as the Turkish women attempted to converse with me. Mehpare explained to them that I didn't speak Turkish, and that I was from America. She had grown amused at acting as my translator, as people were often so curious about me. The women in the waiting area responded with smiles and told her I must be brave for coming to Turkey and visiting a local bathhouse. The women weren't used to seeing foreigners at Karamustafa Kaplicalan. Even after Mehpare left for her oil massage, the women acted friendly towards me despite the fact that we did not share a common language. Not including the few territorial women of the public bathhouse, I must proclaim that Turks are some of the nicest and friendliest people in the world!
About twenty minutes later, I was led back to the room by a different woman in a bikini. She had dark hair and was perhaps in her thirties. As I lay on my stomach, she lathered my whole body, massaging the soap into my skin in circular motions while relieving my tired muscles. She paid extra attention to massaging my shoulder blades, which were likely tight because I was backpacking. The soap gathered around my face so I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sensation of her hands on my body. I breathed in through my mouth and out through my nose, concentrating on not choking as the sudsy foam covered my face and penetrated my nostrils. The woman lathered my hair and scalp, and then she used pantomime to instruct me into turning over. Once I lay on my back, I could breathe much easier. The woman massaged my legs, my stomach, my breasts, and my face. Once she was finished, she rinsed me down by scooping hot water all over my body. I have never felt so fresh and clean in my life.
Before I received my oil massage, I dried off and enjoyed a cup of tea in the lobby. I sat next to a fountain, beneath tall arched ceilings of white marble. The oil massage cost about fifteen dollars. It was done in a dry room atop a typical massage table. The technique was similar to that of a Swedish massage and it lasted for half an hour. I had completed my Turkish bath experience. My skin was smooth as silk. My hair shined bright and smelled like heaven. I felt rejuvenated, like I'd spent a day at the gym without having to do any actual exercise. It was an authentic experience like no other in the world.
Kat Vallera - NomadiKat Travel Media
Author of the new book, "Around the World in 80 J's", now on Amazon
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