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For Westerners, Turkish baths, like most everything in Turkey, are both familiar and unfamiliar. Not surprisingly, visitors who are new to the hammam experience might find it a bit intimidating — that is, unless they have an idea of what to expect.
From the outside, Istanbul’s popular Cemberlitas Hammam is nondescript, blending in with the neighboring shops and restaurants. As soon as I stepped through the doorway into the warmly lit lounge, I understood why Cemberlitas is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful hammams in the city.
After choosing from a list of bath packages, men and women are whisked away to separate bathing chambers. Bathing options range in price, and some include extras such as massages and reflexology. The only mistake would be to choose the self-service option which gives access to the hammam facilities but does not include the traditional bathing service — the truly unique part of the experience.
A Turkish friend warned me that attendants try to usher visitors through as quickly as possible. It’s important to resist in an assertive, yet friendly, way.
The heart of a hammam is a circular room with marble floors, a vaulted ceiling and wash basins around the perimeter. The centerpiece is a large, round heated marble slab. At the edge of the center slab, I gazed at the moon-and-star-shaped holes in the domed ceiling as my attendant took a sopping wet cloth and covered me in warm bubbles. For the next 15 minutes, I was turned every which way and received the heartiest scrub of my life.
At one point, my attendant grinned widely and exclaimed, “Look!”
All along my arms, dead skin was shedding like eraser shavings.
Tempting though it might be, I do not recommend going to a hammam two days in a row. The next day, I visited the Elis Kapadokya Hammam in Goreme, Cappadocia, and ended up with areas rubbed raw. This was no fault of the hammam. I just hadn’t built up enough layers of old skin overnight.
After the traditional scrub, visitors to Cemberlitas are free to rinse themselves, soak in a hot tub, take a nap, receive extra treatments they have paid for or sip apple tea in the lounge. Guests can stay until closing time if they wish. For the full experience, clients should budget at least two hours.
Truly, all the baths I’d taken before were a farce in comparison. To know what it really feels like to be clean, a visit to an authentic Turkish bath is not to be missed.