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Photo found at http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/

I’ve run across two schools of thought with regards to visiting a bathhouse or hamam in Turkey: it’s either a must-do activity or something akin to torture. Or it’s both: I had a friend enthusiastically implore me to take the plunge while simultaneously describing the experience as being “scoured”. It left me curious but apprehensive. So on my last day in Istanbul, I tentatively made my way over to the Cagaloglu Hamami, fully intending to try something new, but knowing I could turn chicken and run at any moment. I am so glad I didn’t succumb to nerves!

The idea of the public bathhouse dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the practice continued to thrive throughout the Ottoman Empire. While it was primarily for hygienic purposes (at a time when household bathrooms were unheard of), it also served a social function: inevitably, you’d run across your boss, your cousin-in-law, your neighbour. Business deals would be made, and much gossiping spread.

The traditional bath has multiple stages. First, you undress and are given a pestemal, a thin cotton towel to wear. Bathing is usually done in the nude (go figure), but due to the influx of Western tourists and the opening of co-ed bathhouses, you have the option of wearing a bathing suit. You will also be given a pair of clogs to wear – a lot of bathhouses have marble floors and there is water everywhere – however, you can wear your own flip-flops instead (I did; I found them easier to walk around in). These are public hamami, so there will be others sharing the facilities with you, but if you can handle showering in a locker room, you can handle this.

You’ll be led (so you don’t slip) to an area full of extremely warm air and steam, where you’ll sit for about a half hour – anyone familiar with a sauna will be comfortable with the idea of sweating the toxins away and opening the pores of your skin. Once you’re good and sweaty, you’ll be lead over to a bench where an attendant will bathe you. Warm water will be poured over you and you’ll be scrubbed down – everywhere – with a kese, a rough cotton glove. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you could find this part uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it was any worse than using a loofah or exfoliating gloves found in most drugstores at home. The next step is a massage, after which you are brought to another room to cool down and relax.

This was the best thing I could have done for myself on my last day in Turkey after an enjoyable but packed two-week tour. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It doesn’t hurt that the hamam I went to was over 350 years old and absolutely gorgeous (it’s on the list of 1000 places to see before you die). However much I want to encourage everyone to go, there are plenty who have gone and wish they hadn’t. You’ll be breathing in steamy air for a considerable time (at least an hour), and your attendent will get personal with parts of you that few others do.

As much as I love travelling, it can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. This was indulgent and relaxing, and I felt fantastic when it was all over. I need to remember to do more of these kinds of things when I’m away.

Photo from http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/
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Have you noticed that colour always seems so much richer when you visit a new place? It’s as though all synapses are firing at full power and your senses come alive. Pop, pop, pop – eye candy everywhere.

It’s not just colour – everything feels so much more when I’m away. Foods burst with flavour and smells are sharper; my pillow could be soft as a cloud or hard as a rockĀ  – either/or but never in between. All I want to do is see, touch and taste everything (though I have learned the hard way, some things are better left unsmelled).

One of my most distinct memories of Turkey is standing on the top of a hill with miles of Cappadocian countryside stretched before me as the noon call to prayer began warbling from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque. These two, the awesome sight of the landscape and the incomprehensible (to me) prayer, are so linked in a sense memory that I can’t imagine one without the other.

It’s not as though we don’t have blue skies, green grass or purple flowers at home (though we don’t have bodies of water that are turquoise, which is why I took approximately 500 photos of various beaches, inlets, harbours etc. along the Mediterranean coast). Still, I find myself entranced by fields of poppies; ripe fruits and vegetables; and textiles, pottery and jewellery that never quite have the same impact as I’m unpacking them from my suitcase upon my return home.

And so I will pull out my trusty camera in the hopes that I can somehow capture how beautiful those bright blue glass “evil eyes” looked embedded in the white mortar of that one building I saw. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can, but sometimes all I’m left with is a spectacular memory and that’ll do.

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