“Is First Time in Hamam?” – An Introduction to Istanbul

An almost perfect view of the Blue Mosque from my hotel roof… except for that pesky POPCORN sign!

In 2014, after exploring nearly every corner of Europe, I set my sights upon Turkey as my next vacation adventure. After spending a few days in the exotic and lovely Cappadocia region of central Turkey, hiking scenic desert canyons, staying in a hotel carved into bizarrely shaped rock formations, dining on wonderful food, and trying to learn a little Turkish, it was time to go to the big city, and as I boarded my flight and buckled myself in, I practiced the wealth of Turkish I’d acquired thus far. I knew merhaba (hello), but found “goodbye” in Turkish to be unpronounceable, so I avoided that phrase! Kelebek (which was the name of my hotel in Cappadocia) means “butterfly” and of course everyone knows what a kebab is. As the flight attendant gave her safety briefing, I added cikis to my vocabulary, which means “exit.” Oh yes, Istanbul, I am ready for you!

I arrived at the airport in the late afternoon and to avoid spending a lot of money on a cab, I opted to spend only $4 and get into the city via Metro and tram and the public transportation system was really pretty easy. First I needed to take a very modern Metro train directly out of the airport and travel for six stops until I reached one with a name that began with Z (all Turkish names are Greek to me!). From there I had to make a transfer over to an above-ground tram line that would take me to within a half a block of my hotel. To use the Metro and tram system you must purchase jetons, which are little red disks made of plastic and resembling a small checker piece. You insert one into a turnstile and you’re on your way!

Neither the Metro nor the tram were terribly crowded and it only took about 40 minutes to get to the hotel. Along the way, I gazed out the window and got my first glimpses of Istanbul. It seemed that there was a Mosque on every corner, with a kebab stand and a carpet store beside each mosque. I studied the people around me and out on the streets; some looked very trendy and western in their dress and appearance, while in contrast, many women wore black burqas, covered head to toe with only a slit for the eyes, and often these women were wearing giant sunglasses so that not even their eyes were visible. The city felt both familiar and exotic, and I suppose it’s always been this way since Istanbul has been a major east/west cultural crossroads for centuries. It is a huge city of almost 14 million people, and geographically, it is vast, actually straddling both sides of the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Istanbul literally has a foot in both Europe and Asia.

Of course it was hot, and much more humid here than in the deserts of Cappadocia, and sweat just poured off me even while simply sitting on the Metro train, which was actually not terribly well-air-conditioned. I shook my head in amazement at men dressed in three-piece business suits looking perfectly comfortable and wondered how they could manage to look so put together while I was melting. I arrived at my hotel, the Nomade, which had been highly recommended by a friend who’d visited Istanbul many times, and as I checked in the desk clerk told me that I could be upgraded to a bigger room for two nights at no extra charge if I was willing to move to a smaller, single room on my third night. That sounded great to me, and I got a beautiful room with a double bed, hardwood floors, bright windows overlooking a small lane filled with restaurants and cafes, and best of all, a high powered air-conditioner that quickly brought the room and my body temperature down to something akin to a meat locker. I was happy! I showered and changed and sat beside the air conditioner and feeling totally refreshed, headed out to find a restaurant for dinner.

I’d read about a restaurant called Aloran, so I headed in that direction, walking through a beautiful and crowded park that separates the famous Blue Mosque, an amazing structure with multiple domes and 6 tall minarets, beautifully illuminated at night, from the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church that was later converted into a mosque. It was then that the “friendliness” began. As I tried to cross the park, countless young men approached me with handsome faces and big smiles.

“Where are you from? Ah, San Francisco! My cousin lives there now! It’s a great city! I love America! How long are you staying in Istanbul? How do you like it so far?”  And then, ultimately this led to, “Come and see my rugs. I have a small store and we give discounts to people from San Francisco!” (This was changed to Boston when I told some of them that I was originally from there.) They were all so polite and friendly it was really hard to just ignore them, but after being stopped by several salesmen and realizing I’d wasted a half an hour in chit-chat, it was getting old. Still, this was far more civilized than my experiences in Egypt, where the sales tactic was to simply shout at me, demanding to know what I wanted to buy, what my size was, and often calling me either “Rambo” or “Ali Baba” in spite of the fact that I have a husky build, red hair and freckled face.  At a market in Cairo a salesman patted his belly and pointed at me and asked if I was pregnant. I really don’t think this is a sales tactic employed by Avon, Tupperware, or the Girl Scouts! At any rate, in Istanbul I quickly learned to walk with my head down and to avoid eye contact with the friendly rug salesmen, but even this was difficult, because some would follow me and ask me why I was being so rude in ignoring them.

I found the street where the restaurant was located and looked up and down, scanning the businesses down the block. Another handsome young man approached me and asked if I was looking for something specific. I mentioned that I was looking for a restaurant named Aloran, and he laughed and pointed; I was standing directly in front of the place, but had my back to it!  Of course after we shared a laugh, my good Samaritan politely informed me that he had a rug shop located beside the restaurant and he hoped I’d visit after dinner because he had a cousin in Boston…

I sat outside and dined on really delicious food: lentil soup, amazing puffy loaves of pita-like bread that resemble gigantic, foot-high mushrooms, olives, salads, and a wonderful lamb dish cooked with apricots. It was a great introduction to Istanbul cuisine! By the time I was done with dinner and had navigated stealthily past another army of carpet salesmen, it was almost 11 PM, so I headed for the hotel. I retired to my cool oasis, three flights above the busy street below, put my head to the pillow and gradually dozed off to the sounds of late night Istanbul.

Appetizers at Aloran

The next day, I slept in and had my breakfast at the hotel’s 6th floor outdoor terrace, with a beautiful view of the Blue Mosque, marred only by a huge box labeled “POPCORN” that sat atop the roof of the building next door, making it hard to take a decent photo of the mosque without it having the popcorn “caption” underneath.

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Nomade

The buffet contained every fruit imaginable and some good breads, pastries and cheeses. It was already hot, so I’d decided my first tourist stop would be to visit the ancient Roman cisterns, built during the last days of the Roman Empire when its eastern headquarters was located in Constantinople, now Istanbul.  It is a huge underground cavern that stores water that comes into the city from an aqueduct. There are hundreds of columns holding the roof up, the place is lit by candle-like lanterns, and you can listen to the sounds of dripping of water and watch the wriggling fish that inhabit this underground lake. It was cooler down here than in the streets above, but the humidity was intense, and the sounds of sweat pouring from my face melded with those of the water droplets from the ceiling.

The magical world of the cisterns…

By the time I’d finished my tour of the cistern, it was about 45 minutes until prayer time ended and the Blue Mosque would then be open to visitors, so I walked there and was immediately met by a young man who told me, “Unfortunately the mosque is closed now.”  (I knew that.) “It opens at 2:00.” (I knew that, too.) “Where are you from? I have a carpet store in the bazaar nearby. You can come and have tea until the mosque opens!” (I knew that was coming.)  Politely but firmly declining his offer, I went into the open courtyard in front of the mosque and as I wandered around taking some pictures, the same man came up to me again and said, “The mosque is closed, I told you! Please come see my rugs!”  I almost pleaded with him to just leave me in peace, and then got into the growing line to enter the mosque. Removing my shoes and throwing them into my backpack, I began to walk around the carpeted mosque, wondering where they bought THEIR carpets! It is a beautiful space, with towering domes and cool blue tiles lining the walls forming intricate patterns. There was an area in the middle where the afternoon prayers were still finishing up and that was roped off. I also noted that the Muslim call to prayer here in Istanbul was a lot more melodious and well-broadcasted than it had been in Cappadocia, where a man who always sounded like he had “morning voice” would chant over a very crackly P.A. system several times a day! That was like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Late in the afternoon I met up with an online pen pal I’d been corresponding with for a long time. His name is Adem, and he actually drove into Istanbul from his place, almost 90 minutes out in the suburbs, just for the chance to meet me in person. What I did not know about Adem, and something he’d never shared with me was that he is deaf and cannot read lips, but even if he could, it would not help: his English vocabulary was only slightly more extensive than my Turkish one! But where there’s a will, there’s a way and thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we sat in front of his laptop and WROTE to one another, as we had been doing in our online interactions, and we used Google Translator to type things from Turkish into English and vice versa, and it actually went pretty well! While we were “talking” there was a huge demonstration going on in the streets, which he didn’t notice because he didn’t hear it! When I pointed it out, he wrote a lengthy explanation saying that due to the troubles in Iraq, several staff from the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad had been kidnapped by terrorists and these demonstrators were angry about the incident. Adem shook his head silently, and then typed, “There are too many troubles in this world today. I can’t make sense of it.” I nodded in agreement. If only Google Translator could help us figure EVERYTHING out, I mused.

After spending a couple of hours visiting with Adem, I then rendezvoused with Lynn, a colleague from my university who had just arrived with her husband for a visit to Istanbul. We met at a restaurant called the Anatolia Cafe, where I had a wonderful meal of lentil soup with lemon, fried calamari, chicken in garlic sauce, and baklava. Baklava is a dessert I have never been a huge fan of, not even when in Greece.  But I wanted something sweet and reviews of this place unanimously mentioned the baklava. They served it warm from the oven and it was truly out of this world; I am now a baklava believer! Lynn and her husband had already had dinner, but they had drinks and watched me eat and we got caught up on one another’s travels. It was nice to spend much of the day having real conversations as opposed to the stilted banter I’d been exchanging with the rug salesmen.

One of the many comical ice cream vendors in Istanbul

I then made a stop for ice cream at one of the many stands that exist throughout the city. Turkish ice cream vendors wear cute little costumes with a hat and tassel, and they are amateur magicians! As they prepare your cone, they use a long utensil not only to fill the cone with ice cream, but also to place the -half-created cone into your shirt pocket and remove it when you reach for it, touch the cone to your nose, and simply play with you for two or three minutes before finally handing you your ice cream. The show was a bit more entertaining than the ice cream itself, which had a strange and chewy consistency. However, I like the ice cream much better than the other “treat” here: Turkish Delight, a candy that is for sale EVERYWHERE and which is served with coffee or in place of dessert at a restaurant if you don’t order an actual dessert. It comes in various flavors, has the consistency of a gummy bear (which I hate) that has gone stale, and is dipped into powdered sugar. Not my favorite thing at all and I was constantly trying to hide them in my napkin or shove them into my pockets so as not to appear rude to my hosts!

Various Turkish Confections

I then had a stroll through the Grand Bazaar, an enclosed market place covering a total of 58 city blocks in which you can buy virtually anything you want. I’d feared it would be an intense onslaught by the vendors, but I was really pretty much left alone. Maybe word was out that the big, redheaded guy from San Francisco (or Boston) was not buying carpets?  I enjoyed a delicious glass of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, which brought back memories of being in Jerusalem a few years before where I was first introduced to this treat.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

In the afternoon, I’d made a reservation to get a traditional session at a hamam or public bath. I had read dozens of reviews about various places in Istanbul where they offer a hamam treatment and it was very confusing, with many contradictory reviews about various places: “Here you will experience the traditional hamam experience!” vs. “They rush you through, it’s very touristy, and was not worth the money.” After seemingly hours of research, I finally settled upon the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, which had gotten excellent and consistent ratings online. I was also glad I’d read so much about the experience beforehand, as it is rather complicated, so at least I knew a what to expect, at least to some extent.

I arrived 15 minutes before my appointment and was escorted to a table in a beautiful, marble covered room in a building that is about 700 years old. You must fill out paperwork and they give you juice and sherbet as you do so. At 5:00 sharp, a young man appeared and escorted me to a locker room area where I was to remove all my clothes and was given a pair of insanely under-sized sandals and a loin-cloth-like towel to wear. He told me to come back downstairs once I was ready. Hobbling down the stairs and trying not to fall with my feet sticking out the back of my sandals by at least 4 inches, I was then led into the main bathing area and the same young man invited me to sit, pointing toward an area with two huge tubs, each shaped like an open scallop shell and with a faucet spigot on the top. He left and I took a seat inside one of the scallop shell tubs and waited for further instructions. He came back moments later and with a somewhat quizzical look on his face said, “Sir, if you please, you must to sit on the step BESIDE the tub, not inside.” I felt like such an idiot, sitting inside this giant scallop shell, dangling my feet over the side, and experiencing a strange kinship to that famous, redheaded Lucy Ricardo as she found herself in yet another crazy situation on “I Love Lucy”.

The Public Room at the Hamam

“Is first time in hamam?” my gentle host asked. I laughed out loud and said, “Yes, it is, but how did you guess?” as I awkwardly climbed out of the shell and sat on the steps as directed. My host then filled giant bowls of warm water in the scallop-shaped tubs and proceeded to dump them on my head as a sort of “pre-rinse”. He then led me to a huge, round marble slab in the middle of the room, upon which another six men were lying on their backs. This hamam is associated with a mosque and so women use the baths from 8AM till 4PM, and men from 4PM till midnight. This room was a sauna or steam room, but was not as hot and uncomfortable as some I have been in. In fact, I have been on non-air conditioned buses in Rome that were hotter than this room! The marble slab was heated from within, and I was asked to lie directly atop the slab, on my back with my head cradled by a silver bowl that looked like a pet’s water dish. There I simmered like meat on a hotplate for about 30 minutes, feeling the warmth emanating from the marble slab into my legs and back, sweating out all the toxins, breathing deeply, and staring up at a dome lighted by white stars and geometric patterns.  I almost dozed off a couple of times. It was surreal and magical.

I was then gently roused by a 40-ish year old man wearing only a towel. He introduced himself as Ahmed, a name as popular here as Dimitri is in Greece! As I continued to lie on the marble slab, Ahmed poured 3 or 4 big bowls of warm water over me to rinse me off and then guided me back over beside one of the scalloped tubs and directed me to sit on the step. For the next 20 minutes or so he used a luffa mitt on my entire body, scrubbing the skin and periodically showing me all the dirt and dead skin that was coming off – a detail that I could easily have done without! Occasionally he’d toss another bowl of warm water over me to rinse me and then kept scrubbing. After this, Ahmed then used what seemed like giant pillow cases filled with soap bubbles and warm water and squeezed the bubbles over me from the neck down, repeating this about 10 times and then scrubbing me some more. Then there was a face scrubbing, a massage of my arms, neck, and back, then a shampoo, and then the rinse off, which went from bowls of very hot water to progressively colder ones, which cooled me down and evidently helps to close the pores. When I was thoroughly rinsed, Ahmed took my hand and guided me into another room and I did not refuse the help:  I felt as mushy as an over-ripe banana by this point!

Ahmed dried me off completely and then wrapped me in a series of plush towels, one around the waist, one over my back and shoulders, and one wrapped tightly around my hair. He then led me out into the foyer area, where I was met by one of the young attendants and taken to the periphery of the room, which was lined with big, elevated couches and pillows. I sprawled out on one of the couches in this much cooler room, and was served herbal tea and told I could remain there as long as I wanted. I think I fell asleep for a while, and in my entire 55 years of life on this planet, I have rarely ever felt so relaxed. It was wonderful and the fatigue and wear and tear I’d accumulated after a month of travel just floated away. Finally, I dragged my limp body back to the locker areas and reluctantly got dressed and went out into the steamy air of Istanbul. The whole experience lasted about two hours, cost me far less than what a good massage would be in the U.S., and was one of the highlights of my time in Turkey.

Since I was now in a new part of the city, across the water from the area where my hotel was, I decided to explore the area around Taksim Square and what is purported to be one of the longest pedestrian streets in all of Europe. I was blown away by the sheer number of people on the street on this Friday night at 8:00 PM. It felt like a huge festival or concert had just let out as thousands and thousands of people strolled, ate, and window-shopped. I am not a big fan of crowds, and it was not pleasant fighting my way through it all. At the end of the street was Taksim Square and when I saw it, I was happy that I wasn’t staying in this part of town, as it was a tacky, Times Square-ish place with a McDonalds and Burger King, and a lot of young people simply standing around, smoking. Not exactly my scene, so I made my way on the tram back over to the old town again, had a few more conversations with polite and persistent rug salesmen, and called it an early night. Unfortunately, that morning I had been asked to move from my beautiful room into the smaller single for my final night, and while it was furnished identically to the big room, it was about half the size, and had only one tiny window looking out on a concrete wall. But worst of all, the air conditioner not only didn’t keep the room cool, it made hideous noises all night, alternating from the sizzling sound of an insect coming into contact with a bug-zapper on a hot summer night to the sound of helicopter blades flying low in pursuit of a fleeing criminal suspect! It was not a restful night, though I tried to comfort myself with thoughts of plush towels, cascades of warm water, slabs of heated marble, and elaborate scallop shell sinks.

In the vicinity of the bustling Taksim Square

My time in Istanbul was all to brief, and I know I only scratched the surface of this dynamic and complicated city in the three days I was there. But I’ve had a taste, found it to be intoxicating and hope to return some day when time, money and world events permit. When I do, I will really know my way around a hamam, and who knows? I may just buy a rug!

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