I had come to the famous luxury hotel Cirağan Palace Kempinski to experience my first Istanbul hammam courtesy of the hotel. I entered the Cirağan Palace spa on the lower level and enjoyed the beautiful Indonesian statuary everywhere. At first it seemed so incongruous with Turkish hammam, but I learned later that due to the international nature of Cirağan Palace hotel, many kinds of massage were offered, including Balinese massage. Indeed, just as there were Turkish hammam specialists in the spa, the hotel also had Balinese masseuse staff available for an Indonesian-style massage if that is what guests want.
The spa lobby itself was small yet very inviting. I could see beyond the room through a window to the very well-appointed fitness room which had every piece of equipment someone would need for a great workout. On the coffee table, a tray with pitcher of refreshing water garnished with orange slices awaited spa visitors. Gülay, the receptionist, knowing the unfamiliarity of North Americans with hammams, came from behind the desk and walked me through step-by-step what would happen during my visit.
|A Turkish peştamal|
Knowing that some visitors could be uncomfortable with nudity, Gülay pointed out there was disposable underwear provided in each locker to wear along with the abundant piece of cloth called a peştamal that hammam visitors strategically use to cover themselves as they move through the process. Peştamals are thin pieces of Turkish cloth specifically designed for the Turkish hammam experience. They are large enough to cover someone's entire body; they don't get heavy when wet and they also dry quickly.
I entered the luxurious locker room and changed into the big white fluffy bath robe provided and took my pestamel. I love these grand hotel locker rooms because, like every part of the hotel, every possible need a human could have had been anticipated. Did you need to sqeeze the water out of your swimming suit? There was a machine for that. Weigh yourself? There was a medical-quality scale. Do you hair? Every possible hair product was there waiting: combs, hair spray, blow dryers, etc. Every possible tooth care product was waiting too: toothpaste, brushes, floss.
Hamam visitors have a choice of prepping their skin in either the steam room or the sauna before going into the hammam. I chose the steam room. Sri, one of the Balinese masseuses dressed in a beautiful Indonesian dress, instructed me to take off my rings and slip them into my bathrobe pocket before I entered. The ultimate luxury provided was trust. I knew I could do that and they'd be there when I got back.
Those five minutes in the steam room help soften the skin for a scrubbing, yet they are pleasurable anyway because of the slowness of the experience. There is deep silence, semi-darkness, and the luxuriousness or warm marble with intense heat and intense steam. Do we have enough moments like that in life - where our only job is to slow down, take deep breathes, and do absolutely nothing but concentrate on restoring ourselves. I felt gratitude for the moment.
Sri came to get me all too soon and introduced me to Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist. Gül was wearing white shorts and a white swimsuit top. During the next hour she would be working very hard in a very warm room so this attire made complete sense. I was immediately comfortable with her. I entered the all marble hammam and took in the beauty of the marble fountains in the side walls, the large marble slap in the center of the room for hammam guests, and the heat.
Gül asked me if I wanted a soft, medium, or hard scrubbing. I chose hard, although it didn't feel hard. It felt just right. Using a special bath mitt, Gül proceeded to slough off my winter skin. I felt like a baby kitten! It was fantastic and I knew my face and body would have a new rosy glow when she was done. My relaxation deepened.
Next came a foam massage, unlike any massage I've experienced anywhere in the world. A giant sleeve of effervescent foam is squeezed out along the length of the body and accompanied by a rush of warm water to make a magnificent sensory experience. With the warmth from the foam and the water still present, the therapist slowly massages aromatic jasmine oil into the skin, starting at the feet.
I almost started to doze off as my relaxation could not get any deeper. I was so content and in such a wonderful meditative, joyful state, I hardly noticed when the spa music started to taper off and the room became completely silent. I waited for the next record to start.
A complete surprise! Completely unexpected by me, Gül, my therapist, started to sing a long, slow Turkish ballad. This is what it must have really felt like to be the Sultan, to not only enjoy the physical sensations of the hammam, but to also have a beautiful female voice singing out and silencing all thought with beauty! She sang a beautiful Turkish song called Berivan.
Later, Gül lead me out of the hammam to a sitting area to rest and recover. She gestured with her hand that the sultan's divan before me was where I should rest. I marveled to myself at the perfection of the experience. While I sat there drinking my tea, I understood instantly that the story of Hürrem, Sultan Suleyman's slave who was so inspiring she became his wife, was the Turkish equivalent of the fairy tale Cinderella. I had just received treatment worthy of the best Cinderella tale every written.
I was filled with contentment and expressed to Gül just how beautiful I found her singing and my hammam experience. "Actually, my song is my gift to you. I don't do it in every hammam, the energy has to be right. For example, if a male guest says, 'I don't want to use my peştamal, I want to take it off, the energy becomes wrong and I don't sing. But your energy was fantastic." I'm so glad!
Later, I was explaining to a friend that everyone thinks of soldiers as the great patriots, but truly, Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist, is for me, a true Turkish patriot. In one hour, she communicates and transmits one of the most beautiful aspects of Turkish culture to visitors and sends folks raving about the glories of Turkey all over the world when they get back home.
In case you missed part one of this adventure:
My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Cirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One
and if you're interested in reading Turks and their Hammams: a couple of stories of how they use them
Hammam photos courtesy of Cirağan Palace Kempinski
Peştamal photo courtesy of callixto.com
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