Shedding my Summer Skin at the Turkish Bath

Winter is upon us. Sort of. Kind of. Well the sunny days are shorter so I guess that counts as winter. It may not be winter as we Brits know it but it is time for the bi-annual deep cleanse and scrub of the Turkish Bath Experience.

Twice a year, in winter to prepare for a couple of months under cover and to remove the residue of oil and dust that clogs the pores after eight months of summer, and in early spring in preparation for the long days of sunshine to come, a deep cleanse of the skin is in order. So Nick and I headed off to the local bath house to shed some skin.

Apart from the small municipal baths here in Kusadasi we also have two excellent private Hamam. The Kaleici Hamam which is buried in the maze of narrow streets down by the Caravanserai and which has been there a very long time, and the more modern Ada Saray Hamam which is on the outskirts of town on the road to Kustur Beach. The Kaleici Hamam offers an authentic experience and is the older and more atmospheric of the hamam’ but on this occasion I decided on the Ada Saray Hamam, it is a lighter, brighter building and I’m happy to sacrifice a little authenticity for modernity, pleasant staff, reasonable prices and easy parking!

The Turkish Bath is a mainstay of the tourist experience in Turkey, it’s right up there with belly dancing by blondes from Azerbaijan and dislocating your lungs trying to inhale tobacco through a water pipe. It’s also probably about as authentic a cultural experience in most cases. So try not to think of it as gaining deep insight into an ancient cleansing ritual (unless you are in Istanbul and going topless with the local ladies for a long afternoon of gossip and personal questions amongst the steam) and try not to imagine a luxurious spa experience, because it’s not that either. Instead prepare yourself for cultural lite and a deep clean that is fun, does wonders for your skin and leaves you feeling great.

First job when you enter a Hamam is to choose your treatments and negotiate a price. Chances are there won’t be a price list; that would take all the fun away! As a rough guide, right now, an hour long session of relaxing in the steam, full body exfoliating and soap massage runs to around 30-35tl. If you add on extras like a foot treatment, face masque or an oil massage you will tend to get discounts on the combined price.

I opted for the full service scrub followed by a foot treatment for my little hooves with a half hour massage afterwards.

Once a price had been negotiated – and they are very sweet about it in the Ada Saray – you are given a lockable cubicle for your clothes, advised to strip to your underwear or bikini, given a pestemal (the fringed chequered cloth you wrap around yourself to preserve your modesty) and then you are lead to the haman itself.

As we entered the Haman itself the Bath Attendant, the Keseci, was standing in the foyer industriously cleaning his teeth. I had mixed feelings about this, either he was (a) very polite and considerate or (b) expecting to get too close. I chose to go with (a) and smiled brightly, avoided eye contact and slipped into the steamy depths of the bath room.

In the octagon of the bath chamber the steam was pleasantly fragranced with menthol and the central slab was gloriously hot. The walls are clad with blue veined marble and a pleasant dome of blue mosaic tiles arches overhead, its surface beaded with moisture that occasionally falls in loud fat drops.

Around the walls niches hold marble basins with simple taps for hot and cold water. As this is cultural low brow the traditional ornate metal tas (bowls) you find in the historic hamam are replaced with utilitarian plastic bowls. But they do the job when the steam gets too much and a quick rinse with cool water is necessary.

We relaxed on the central marble slab, letting the steam and heat do its work and waiting for the Keseci to finish his own preparations.

Nick amused himself in the traditional British way by making farting noises with his back against the hot wet marble. When he got bored with this he took to hiding behind pillars and sneaking up on me with bowls of freezing water. British men – can’t take them anywhere that isn’t a train museum!

After about twenty minutes the Keseci arrived, flexing his muscles, clad in his own pestemal and ready to get down to work. After rinsing himself with warm water he got stuck into the exfoliating. Using a black mitten (kese) and long sweeping strokes the Keseci worked steadily over my obviously rather grubby body. Whereas exfoliating Nick resulted in small tight rolls of very black skin I produced thick, fat, pale grey rolls – oh the shame of it!

Grunting with satisfaction the Keseci sloshed a bucket full of cold water over me, washing my shed skin down onto the Hamam floor. Nick was really impressed with how much skin was removed and made various helpful exclamations of surprise.

Next he attacked my feet with an industrial sized cheese grater and a pumice stone. Now I don’t actually have feet, I have hooves, and because I spend most of my life in either flip flops or uggs they are in poor condition at the heels. Pretty painted toe nails yes, hideous calluses’ underneath. The Keseci firmly grabbed an ankle and proceeded to remove two inches from my height by skilful application of the cheese grater. I politely refrained from kicking him in the head.

Actually it didn’t hurt and it didn’t tickle. The skin was softened from steam and scrubbing and in short order I had pretty round heels again.

After all the scrubbing and grating comes the soap massage, my favourite bit. The Keseci worked up a fine lather in a cotton bag and squeezed very generous piles of air light foam over me. A slithery soap massage followed and I skidded around the marble slab in accordance with the muttered instructions of the attendant – turn over, foot, arm, move hair, sit up.

Following a hair wash and final rinse down Nick and I were guided from the bath chamber, wrapped in an assortment of fresh towels and guided back to the foyer where hot tea and cold water were provided before we moved on to an oil massage.

I’m not good at relaxing, I’m good at doing nothing but I’m not good at relaxing. I may look chilled out but actually I am vibrating with more internal pressure than the San Andreas Fault. I don’t even relax when I sleep. Every massage I have ever had has resulted in the masseuse bouncing off the knots in the muscles of my back and bruising their fingers trying to sooth the sort of tension that means where other people have shoulders I have an RSJ. Still, I think they do me good so I am always having massages in an attempt to unwind.

Massages in Turkish Baths tend to be informal, rough and ready procedures. No dim lights and scented candles here. They are practical and matter of fact and thorough. Massage tables line the upper gallery of the Ada Saray Hamam, placed companionably close together they are basic facilities and the masseurs chatter to each other as they work. My masseuse was complaining to Nick’s about how expensive her telephone bill was.

I tuned her out and turned my head and looked out of the window beside me at the olive groves on the hillside.

I have had massages in fine spa’s where the hands are gentle and the pressure laconic and basically you are paying for a finely scented stroking. From Mexico to Italy, UK to USA I have had massages – hot stone, lymphatic drainage, Swedish, Thai, therapeutic, you name it, I’ve had it. But that rough and ready massage in the Ada Saray Hamam, looking out through a window at a slice of Aegean sky that tumbled with clouds and row upon row of olive trees flashing their silver leaves in the wind from the sea was quite unique and altogether very nice.

It all makes for a pleasant afternoon out. I would imagine in the season it is busy but now it is quiet and chances are you will be the only people there. It’s a low pressure atmosphere but professionally run and a good introduction to the Turkish Bath experience for those who haven’t been before.

We left feeling clean and shiny and with our minor aches and pains soothed by a combination of warm marble, steam and oily massage. Feel good factor – very high.