“To Hamam or not to Hamam?” That is the question and the answer is a big, soapy YES! Now let’s be perfectly honest, a visit to the former birthplace of the Ottoman Empire would not be complete without the unforgettable experience of a traditional Turkish Hamam!
If you are anything like me, when it comes to thinking of a Hamam or Turkish Bath, you immediately conjure up images of skin scrubs, soap suds, steamy marble rooms, water and lots of slippery wet Turkish women! Well the famous and luxurious KILIÇ ALI PASA HAMAMI in the very hip neighbourhood of Tophane Karaköy in funky downtown Istanbul, does not disappoint!
Featured in Luxe Magazine as ‘the best Hamam in Istanbul’ I decided (along with my sister ZB) to go along and give it a try to see just what all the fuss was about and weren’t we in for a super deluxe treat!
Having chosen to book by phone a few days before as there were two of us (you can also book online and it is a very straight forward procedure) we were given an extremely professional response to my enquires. A backup email was sent confirming date, time and what would be required during the visit and all this was done through an English speaking representative from the Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami team. First impressions were excellent. Now… let’s talk about the most important thing…the full hamam experience!
Priced at TL270 per person (approximately AUD$57) for the all inclusive 1.5hr session, it is fantastic value for money! Extra services are offered at an additional cost. You each have your very own natir (attendant) for the entire time and the episode was nothing short of perfect from beginning to end. [FYI: This particular hamam has women and men only times. Women in the mornings from 8-4pm and men in the afternoons from 430 -1130pm. Arrive 15 minutes before your appointment].
The Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami is set in an ancient and majestic marble Mosque dating back to 1580 that has been carefully restored to its former glory and is said to be amongst one of the most ‘symbolic buildings in Tophane’ (Istanbul’s harbour district). The sheer opulence and grand beauty of this imposing building itself makes one feel like the Queen of Constantinople even before entering!
Escaping the oppressive 35 degree heat and mayhem of the street, we were quietly ushered into the tranquil, cool and serene surroundings of the hamam’s luxurious marble interior with its huge dome and relaxing, trickling water feature. We were immediately set at ease by a lovely, hospitable member of staff who set us down and offered us a very much required refreshing welcome drink of Erik Serbeti or Plum Sherbet. (This is a cool drink prepared in a traditional method which has been passed down through generations and has medicinal purposes. The ‘sherbet ritual’ was a big part of palace life, but also enjoyed on occasion by the general public or just a couple of ordinary gals like us!) Whilst sipping on our delicious sherbet, we were given a detailed description of what would take place during our visit.
We filled in a medical form and were assigned personal lockers and given a rubber wrist band with our key which you keep with you at all times. (Mine was ingeniously used as a hair band throughout my session!) All belongings are kept in the locker area on the first floor (easily visible from the relaxation area) above the main entrance area and safes are available for valuables if required.
Thoughtfully placed in our lockers were rubber sandals (our size was determined at reception), a traditional Turkish cotton towel in which to wrap yourself (all linen used throughout was traditional Turkish cotton), hangers and baskets for your belongings. We quickly changed into our bikini bottoms (no top is required but it’s totally up to you and if necessary, disposable g-strings are offered if you don’t have swimmers). It was all very straight forward, simple and organised!
We made our way down to the hamam floor and were guided through to the steam room. Upon entering this seductively warm and pleasantly scented area filled with women of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, we were then introduced to our individual natir’s ( a pair of 30-40 year old Turkish women who were lovely) who sat us on the outside marble benches and proceeded to douse us in warm water! A strange but pleasant sensation! After about 2 minutes of having bowls of water sloshed all over you, one then moves to the heated and oversized, round marble slab in the middle of the domed room. All that is required is for you to lie down and relax, allowing the heat and water combination do its job and soften the skin in preparation for the full body scrub routine!
Laying out our drenched Turkish towels and flopping down like seals onto the slippery, warm slab, you can’t help but feel like someone from the Ottoman past and can understand just how addictive this style of personal bath service could become! I lay staring up at the great dome with its beautiful amber glass bubbled inlay and just allowed the waves of heat and cool to sweep over me. [FYI: It can become quite overwhelming, so I suggest to just relax, breathe and stay calm throughout if possible. Large plastic glasses of cold water are also given to you to sip at anytime throughout the session].
After approximately 10 minutes, your personal natir comes for you and takes you over to the washing side of the great marble room. This is a specific area (sluiced down thoroughly after each woman) and you even have your own marble wash basin! Cool! ( I wish I had photos but cameras, of course, are not permitted in the hamam room). You are sat down and saturated with water again, first warm then cool and constantly asked if “everything is ok?” which is nice! My natir (who probably thought I was drowning as I kept gasping) then dons a huge, white, roughly textured mitt and proceeds to literally scrub vigorously my ENTIRE body! Arms, legs, bum, face, boobs, you name it, lay prey to the constant wielding of the mitt and I watched in horror as years and years of crusty dead skin cells rolled off in minutes (gross but true) to reveal my baby soft new dermis!
After the scrub, in which you to stand so your back, the backs of your legs and your bottom can also be scoured, you sit and are once again doused with warm water to wash away the visual sins of your old skin! Next comes the complimentary massage of your back, neck, arms, legs and feet! Magic! It is thoroughly invigorating and performed very professionally and I was continually asked if the pressure was ok. It was perfect…tesekkür ederim!
Now…the washing of the hair ritual! This is optional (but included in the price) and all locally produced organic shampoos and conditioners are provided. This is also a fantastic addition to the whole experience and I would highly recommend it. No hair follicle was left untouched and even my scalp was begging for more after the head and face massage! After this comes the ‘bubbleshower’ using an ancient technique of blowing up a cotton bag, similar to a pillowcase, with air and emptying it by hand over your head allowing the soap suds to cascade down your body! I have never seen this before and was quite impressed as was ZB! The soap suds are then washed away by yet more bowls of water that are poured over you till all evidence of soap, skin and dirt have disappeared, slithering down the marble drains.
An hour later and you are literally squeaky clean, shiny, warm and relaxed! Your newly washed head is then carefully wrapped in a proper Turkish towel turban and your body in a clean cotton cloth. You are then lead out, sliding around in your sexy rubber sandals, to the beautifully decorated ‘drying room’ where your personal natir thoroughly dries you, including your little feet and are then escorted back to the relaxation area in the main room of the hamam. Phew!
Stretching out like satiated cats on the beautiful Turkish upholstered banquettes, we are left to just relax and ponder on the entire experience whilst listening to softly piped music. [FYI: No Çay (Turkish tea) was presented, which I found odd, as this traditional beverage is offered to you, complimentary, at all times of the day and night in every store or shop you enter in Turkey as part of their lifestyle and to show kindness to others]. Here, however, you have to purchase your drinks. We decided that we both fully deserved some ‘aprés hamam refeshment‘ so we chose from the little menu which had been thoughtfully placed on our ottoman. A cup of Japanese Matcha green tea for me and a glass of freshly pressed lemon juice for ZB was the perfect conclusion to our heavenly hamam sessions.
ZB and I reluctantly departed approximately 40 minutes after our wind down, but you are made to feel free to remain as long as needed ensuring you are out before the men’s session commences. For your convenience, hair dryers, combs and moisturiser are available in a little salon adjacent to the locker rooms. Photos are permitted to be taken in the main area of the hamam and their bathhouse boutique is open next door for you to browse and contemplate various bathroom adornments to complete your very own personal hamam at home.
Stepping forth into the cruel light and heat of the hot afternoon, we were a pair of thoroughly clean, toxin free, sister machines! All ready and relaxed for what the night ahead had to offer, we both agreed that it was one of our BEST experiences! It was exceptionally clean with highly professional and friendly staff on all levels, organised and unobtrusive all wrapped up in peaceful, luxurious and comfortable surroundings and of course, EXCELLENT value for money. I highly recommend indulging in a Turkish Hamam if you are ever in this part of the world. I would honestly have one a week if I was fortunate enough to call Istanbul home. So let’s all pray and say ‘Hooray for the Hamam! May its beneficial beauty baths live on for another thousand years and continue to scrub us westerners clean!
…”Soap is to the BODY what laughter is to the SOUL”… Anonymous