I’m not a big fan of massages. Whether they’re given by a loved one or a paid professional, my body has a tendency to tense, ache, or become embarrassingly ticklish at the slightest touch. As for hot stones, essential oils, and weird rolling torture sticks? They do little to sweeten the deal.
This was the stance I maintained on a trip to Istanbul with friends. We passed by Cagaloglu Hamam (featured in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die) several times over our week there, and my friend Sarah pleaded and begged and told me it dated to the Ottoman era (read: was extra beautiful and authentic), and still I resisted. I hate massages, I told her. And hamam = massage + water. Also, it was winter, and the frigid wind off the Bosphorus cut like a knife. I was keeping my clothes on during this vacation.
Yet on our final day in the city, as members of our group splintered into pairs on specific missions to find Turkish Delights and towels, my boyfriend and I found ourselves wolfing down chickpea stew in the Grand Bazaar, and bellies full, decided that a trip to Cagaloglu would be the perfect way to spend the last hour before we had to catch a taxi to the airport. YOLO, right? Better see that hamam before we digest and before we die.
In Cagaloglu’s entrance hung an extra-large electronic banner commemorating its place in 1000 Places to See. Aside from a beautiful fountain in the middle of the room, kitsch was the prevailing theme. Undeterred (for we are lovers of kitsch), we paid for two Exfoliating Services and before splitting up (I to the women’s side, he to the men’s) agreed to meet back at the entrance in EXACTLY ONE HOUR or we’d miss our flight.
I was given the key to a small changing room, and undressed to my skivvies (underwear or bikini bottoms were mandatory in the hamam, and I had only the former). Supplied with a small towel (a peshtemal) and a pair of wooden platform sandals to shuffle around in, I was then directed to a large industrial showering room, and from there, to the hararet—the "hot room"—which, to my surprise, lived up to its title: it was an amazing place to see before dying.
Around the perimeter of the marble room were small fountains fed by brass spigots, and flanked by low benches. Daylight filtered in through small starburst cut-outs dotting the domed ceiling. In the middle of the room was a large octagonal marble slab where women were being massaged, laying one to each side. A short, zaftig masseuse in a black bathing suit (so thick it looked made of rubber) walked over and handed me a shallow metal bowl, then led me to a bench and made me sit.
"Do I stay here?" I asked her.
Saying nothing, she went back to a client lying on the marble platform. I observed other women waiting on other benches and did what they did: filled my bowl with cool water from the fountain, then dumped it over my upper body. After repeating this a number of times, I began to relax into the scene.
How does time move in an 18th century hamam? Not the same way it does in a 21st century city. As I lounged and doused, the platform filled and refilled with massagees, each vigorously washed and rubbed by the strong women in black bathing suits, in a way that looked potentially painful. Yet their faces told another story: Through the scrubbing and rubbing, a blissed-out expression generally appeared, some even seemed to doze off.
When it felt like an hour had passed and my turn had not yet come, I got up, slipped on my sandals, and began shuffling back to the changing room. In some ways, I was relieved to have missed the massage; the inside of Cagaloglu was enough of a wonder for me—a pre-Raphaelite fantasy come to life.
I made it as far as the changing room door. A commotion followed in my wake, and when I turned to see what was going on, there was the woman who’d led me to the bench, suds dripping from her arms and mid-section. She grabbed my hand like a scolding grandmother, and started dragging me back to the hot room.
"I have to go," I explained to her. "I have to be at the airport."
She shook her head. She didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Turkish. Another patron introduced herself as bilingual and explained my situation to her.
"She promises to be very fast," our translator told me. The masseuse patted my hand, flashed a sweet smile, and prodded me up onto the slab.
She was fast, but in the hararet, time again moved slowly. I was soaped, lathered, rubbed, and washed until I felt like a newborn babe. Every single worry, any stress, any anxiety about flying or being late melted away. I could just live in Cagaloglu, I reasoned, as she used a rough mitt (called a kese) and olive oil soap to slough a layer of skin off my body. I could stay in this Ottoman bath cave forever.
A slap on my butt woke me up. She was done. I'd fallen asleep! During a massage! I was a new woman.
And we made our flight on time. It is a testament to the hamam experience that I slept the whole way through that as well, because I’m also not a big fan of flying. While I remain skeptical of 1000 Places to See’s fatalistic brand of bucket-listing, should you find yourself in Istanbul, get thee to Cagaloglu—you will not be disappointed.
But if laptop travel better suits your current budget, let Kate Moss’ slightly more carnal approach to the place take you away.
W Magazine September 2008. Photographs by Tom Newton.