Sunday's New York Times travel section has a story about Istanbul's tourist hamams and high-end spas. The piece, which was written by Carpetfriend and neighbor Parisian Suzanne, singles out the obvious ones -- Çemberlitaş and Cagaloğlu in Sultanahmet about which we've written before here and here -- and expensive spas that, in the unlikely event we'd ever darken their door, probably wouldn't let us in anyway. Reading this story, you'd think there's nowhere affordable in Istanbul to get a scrub.
We happen to have it on good authority that earlier versions of the story included cheaper hamam alternatives. We know this because we provided the data, which included the caveat that, of the three people we know who have visited the ghetto hamman at the end of our street we often recommend, two came away with unpleasant skin conditions. Why does the New York Times hate folliculitis? Since our voice cannot be silenced by the mainstream media, we will use this platform* -- read by tens of people -- to mention hamams at which we personally have never gotten any skin diseases.
First of all, there's nothing wrong with Çemberlitaş and Cagaloğlu other than they are expensive, perfunctory and crowded. If you have not yet become comfortable with taking off all your clothes in front of strangers with whom you do not share a language and having most inches of your body scrubbed by pendulous-breasted women in bikini bottoms, we recommend you have your first hamman experience at one of these two places. The scrub isn't going to go anywhere you don't want it too and the ladies can grunt enough English to suggest you need a wax. The hamam spaces are exceptionally beautiful and the worst that will happen to happen to you is you will see parts of a 60 year old Dutch woman that you wish you had not.
Because no one is going to explain anything to you at the neighborhood hamams and the potential for trauma is high, it helps to understand the drill before you head off to one. Most importantly, few local hamams are big enough to have separate sections for men and women, so men's hours are usually in the mornings and evenings and women's hours during are during the day. Don't walk in during men's hours, or you're going to see parts of hairy Turkish men you wish you had not.
My personal favorite is the Eski Kaplıca in Bursa (or rather, Çekirge). Although it is rather pricey (35YTL), it still attracts a local crowd of very, very large older women (suggesting a dual pricing structure). Since Bursa is known for its hot springs, instead of sweating on hot marble you sit in hot sulphuric pools until the attendant is ready to scrub you. We took Red State Sibling there back in April and both of us were taken aback at all the different shapes and lengths breasts can take. The ladies laughed out loud at our flat chests and inability to sit for long under the scalding stream of spring water flowing out of the wall. I recommend this hamam for ridding yourself of any preconceived notions of the shape female bodies can take.
If we weren't lazy, we'd take a ferry over to Üsküdar and try out the Çinili hamam there. It's been recommended by people we like, but we are lazy and Üsküdar is pretty far away. If you go, please report.
Finally, there's the Fıruzağa Historic Hamam at the end of Çukurcuma. Tucked back next to an ironmonger, it looks rather gritty from the outside. The changing cabins aren't very impressive and the squat toilets, by which you have to pass to enter the steam rooms, smell bad. A full scrub here costs 25 YTL, which is about as cheap as they come. The people we know who've had negative experiences there suggest -- a bit snottily, as a matter of fact -- that you get what you pay for. That may be, but if you are looking for a neighborhood hamam experience and are prepared to have a scrub that's as invasive as the Çemberlitaş scrub is half-assed, Fıruzağa is for you. Just bring your own kese, okay?
Let's talk about cleanliness. All hamams are hot and steamy and smell a bit like mildew. Because I long ago learned to shut off my peripheral thought ("How often do they use bleach?" "Do you think the micoroganisms growing in there are Ottoman era as well?" "Do they use fresh wax for everyone?"), I don't think about things like this. However, I can't not think about the ropes of skin -- my own and everyone else's -- produced by the scrub. Where does all that skin go? Is the cursory bucketful of water enough to send the previous scrubee's leftovers down the drain? Does it clog the pipes eventually?
There's another way to look at the skin issue. The scrubbing ladies are as grossed out about it as we are. Because we don't generally exfoliate with the same degree of aggressiveness as regular haman-goers, they view us -- with all our nasty dead skin -- as dirty. Just keep that in mind as you lie on the slab.
*Let's not lose sight of the fact that like the NYT travel section we, too, embrace the opportunity for editorial content to be driven by profit.