Here’s What You Can Expect in a Turkish Hammam

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Do you wear a swimsuit? Do you pay for an attendant, or serve yourself? While it can be daunting and confusing to visit an Istanbul hammam, all you need to do is to understand the basic gist of how they run and get past the attire etiquette. After which, you can find yourself heading to the spas like a local in no time, with experiences that promise to be among the highlights of your holiday.

TO CLOTHE OR NOT TO CLOTHE?

Most hammams have separate steam rooms for men and women. In this situation, men are expected to cover themselves with at least a loincloth, but women can throw caution to the wind. Most Turkish women subtly drape themselves with their cloth when they’re not actually bathing, but if you prefer to bask nude no-one will bat much of an eyelid. If you’re a woman and you find yourself in the kind of hammam that has mixed-sex steam rooms and male attendants, it’s usual to keep on at least the bottom half of a swimsuit.

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OVERSIZED TEA TOWELS AND NON-SLIP SHOES

The typical garb that you’ll be presented with by attendants is a cloth (resembling, in most establishments, an oversized tea towel) and some shoes (either traditional wooden clogs or fluorescent flip-flops). Keep the cloth on to travel from the changing rooms to the hammam, and stick with the shoes: as a surface for pratfalls, only banana skins beat wet marble.

SWEAT IT OUT

Once you’ve been shepherded into the hammam you’ll be left to lounge on the heated marble. In most cases, there’ll be a gobektasi (belly stone), a round central platform where you can loll around like a sunning python. If not, take a seat and lean against the walls. The idea is to sweat, loosening dirt and toxins for about 15 minutes in preparation for your wash.

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RUBDOWNS AND MASSAGES

There are a few ways to go at the hammam. Some choose self-service, which means that when you’re satisfied that you’ve loosened the toxins it’s time to move on to a self-administered loofah-and-soap rubdown. Once finished, douse yourself with water from the marble basins. If you’ve paid for an attendant, you’ll be laid down on the edge of the gobektasi and sluiced with tepid water, then it’s massage time. First up is a dry massage with a kese (rough mitt). Depending on your attendant, this experience can be tranquil (a little like being washed by a giant cat) or tumultuous (picture a tornado made of sandpaper). Next will be the soap: a bit like taking a bubble bath without the bath. Then more sluicing, followed by a shampoo, and voila, you’re clean as a whistle. If you order an oil massage, this will come last and you’ll be ushered into another room for it.

HANG AROUND AND RELAX

Many tourists splash-and-dash their way through the hammam experience, leaving immediately after their treatment. The locals, on the other hand, hang around. Overheat, cool down with a dousing, and repeat to fade. Let your muscles turn to toffee and your mind go pleasantly elastic. This is what the hammam is really all about.

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Story originally appeared on SilverKris.

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