“He made me lie face down near the fountain and massaged the back of my legs incredibly firmly as though he was trying to make impressions of my calves and knees in the marble. He did this with his forearms and it almost hurt. I didn’t think my knees could feel squashed but they did although the feeling soon returned. Maradona then flattened my feet against the marble – which made me laugh as it seemed to stretch my muscles and they felt so loose afterwards.”
After a day walking around the Topkapi Palace or rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other tourists in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, what better way to relax than by having a Turkish Bath? The most convenient place for tourists, and also the most famous, is the Cemberlitas Baths, the entrance to which is around 20 metres from the Cemberlitas tram stop.
I had plenty of time to read about the various options on offer (In English) at the entrance as the three Italian ladies in front of me all wanted the “Luxury” option, costing 90 Turkish Lira ($60 Canadian), and paid individually by credit card. I decided upon the ‘Traditional’ option, costing 55 Lira, and paid in cash, receiving in return a folded scrubbing mitt enclosed in plastic and a towel called a pestemal that would cover my middle third. I was directed straight ahead whereas the ladies have a separate entrance to their changing rooms, steam room, and showers.
I crossed the entrance hall or camekan and headed up the stairs. I was greeted by the changing room attendant, Omar, who was the only person I met in the baths who didn’t solicit for a tip. I was on the lower of two levels of individual changing rooms called halvets that were locked with a key, which had a loop attached that fitted snugly and securely over my wrist. Having changed into my towel and some loose-fitting wooden sandals I felt very pale all of a sudden. Omar indicated I should go back down the stairs where I was directed through one door into the shower and warming down area. Here people were sitting around having shoulder massages, drying themselves, and sitting still with their eyes closed.
The door to the steam room opened and I clip-clopped through the slight haziness into the huge, domed room. An attendant pointed to where I should lie down on the circular central slab that was 10 metres in diameter. This is called a gokektasi and is directly above the heating source. There were around 20 customers and 5 attendants. I laid down on the slab and started to stare at the ceiling and tried not to feel too hot as I gradually melted into the marble. This steam room was built in 1584 and like the rest of the Cemberlitas Baths was designed by the great architect Sinan, who designed many of the mosques in Istanbul. Fountains around the edge contain water to help people cool down if they feel they can’t cope with the temperature. All around I heard people being washed, massaged, slapped a little, scrubbed, and sloshed with water.