Oh, the Turkish Hamam!

On my recent trip to Turkey I was amazed to find Turkish words and verb tenses bubbling up from the nether reaches of my brain. Turkish is a difficult language, but it makes up for that by being a kind one. Some of its daily niceties warm my heart:

When you see someone working, you say Kolay gelsin.” as you pass. May it come easy to you.” I know of no similar sentiment in English,

Or how about when the young woman you met recently is sick to her stomach? The Turkish kindness for difficult situations is Geçmiş Olsun.” “May you leave it behind you.” Isnt that sweet?

When someone sets a meal before you, Turks say Afiyet Olsun.” “May this nourish you.” Then you respond with Elinez Sağlic.” “Health to your hands.”

The list goes on, but enough of that. I want to explain Turkish baths.

Our second city on this tour was the mountaintop village of Şirince.

The view overlooking Şirince from our cottage.

When I visited fifteen years ago, typical village transport was donkeys, but many of the narrow streets have been upgraded from various-sized rocks to large, flat ones for cars. Disappointing, but what can you do? Progress. Most of the streets are barely wide enough for a small car. Thankfully, the little shops have retained their small-village charm, from fruit wine vendors to jewelry and craft stores. On every street we encountered women in şhalvar (skirt-like pantaloons) selling herbs, baked goods, and crafts.

Scott and Jerry avoid shopping as Marnie negotiates with a local.

Our hotel, the Nişanyan, was perched at the top of the village, something of a botanical garden dotted with cottages and ancient Ottoman houses. We stayed in a 500-year-old whitewashed stone cottage with foot-thick walls. It had a sitting room that featured a low cushioned bench festooned with colorful embroidered pillows, a carved stone fireplace, and a single platform bed. Both that and our bedroom/sitting room had small cupboard niches with carved wooden doors, Turkish carpets, and charming wall decorations.

A chair in our bedroom, just a hint of the charm of our 500-year-old  Nişanyan cottage.

Our bathroom was a traditional hamam (Turkish bath)—a wonder. It was a large marble room with a domed ceiling emitting light through round glass “eyes.” Two windows were set into the rounded back wall. A low marble basin with a faucet sat on the far end, beside it a low stool with a metal bowl for scooping water from the basin. Thats how hamams are everywhere—you sit on a stool or bench, then repeatedly scoop hot water and pour it over yourself. A drain across the entire floor transports it to the sewer. 

Our cottage had a complete little private hamam in the bathroom.


This is the resort’s tiny hamam available to all the renters.

We visited a community hamam in Ürgüp, Cappadocia. We were first ushered into locker rooms to undress and don slippers and peştemal (PESH-ta-mal), plaid cotton towels. Women wore two (one on top and one on the bottom), while the men only got one. The six of us were then ushered into a steam room with marble benches and a marble sink. We took turns pouring hot water over each other, soaking ourselves through.

Three of us steaming as the others poured water over each other.

Twenty minutes later the masseuses (women draped in peştemal) brought us out into the main part of the hamam, where a massive heated marble slab dominated the room.

There was much discussion over who would be on the heated slab and who would get a private room.

There were side rooms, too, each with its own high marble bench (heated) and marble sinks. My masseuse poured warm water over me, then scrubbed every inch of skin with a textured mitten-like scrubber. It felt a little like sandpaper, only nicer. After that, more hot water and a seaweed facial mask.

Even the men got a seaweed mask. Go, Tony!


Jerry scored a private room, as did I.

Then the soap suds. Oh, the soap suds. She took a long, net bag and soaked it in a tub of soapy water. Then she swung it back and forth a few times before squeezing suds over me, coating my body with what felt like a warm blanket. She repeated this a few more times until I was completely covered.

Link to a video of the soapsuds technique–amazing!

Rather than oil, the suds from olive oil soap provide a slippery surface for massage. And what a massage it was! By the time she’d finished, I was a noodle. She helped me sit up and poured bowl after bowl of hot water over me. 

The Turkish Hamam is a unique, relaxing experience. Once dried and dressed, we were offered tea or water (Turks frown on drinking cold water, but we insisted) as we relaxed on cushions in an outer room. Wet noodles all.

Back to Istanbul—AGAIN!

As my friends back home struggled with yet another snowstorm, I sat in the Istanbul airport reminiscing about our last three (sunny) days in the city. Though I lived here for years and know the city well, each day brought new experiences, new history, new insights.

I LOVE Istanbul!

It was Ramadan, so a good percentage of the population fast from sunrise to sunset. We’d arranged to enjoy an iftar  (breaking of the fast) dinner on our first night, so we strolled down to the Matbah restaurant eager to see what lay ahead. Our table for six was set with mouth-watering mezes (appetizers), a traditional fruit juice, and water. We sat salivating over a feast of eggplant salad, humus, tapenade, pickled beets, vegetables, fresh, crusty bread, and other delicacies as we waited for the sunset call to prayer.At the first strains from nearby minarets, we loaded our plates with mezes as waiters swept in with steaming bowls of soup. Food never tasted so good.

Travel companions, Peggy, Scott, Marnie, Tony, and Jerry. I’m taking the picture.

We visited the usual Istanbul sites—the Hippodrome (from Roman times), the Blue Mosque (closed for renovation), Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Sophia, which has gone from a Christian Church (532-1453) to a mosque (1453-1931) to a museum (1931-2020) and now, sadly, back to a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia, now lit and used as a mosque.
looking up through the lights at the stunning dome of the Hagia Sophia

We also had some surprises. As we strolled along the imposing Byzantine walls that encircle the old city, we encountered men gingerly toting boxes, bags, and cages. What? Our guide Elif explained that many Turkish men are passionate about pigeons, and the Sunday Pigeon Market was up the hill. Well, why not? She paid our admission (about 50¢) to a fenced-in market, a menagerie of pigeons and purchasers.

The AMAZING Sunday pigeon market

Though we were the only women among scores of men, they hardly noticed us as they inspected birds, prodding and turning them as they decided whether they were worth the price ($5 to $100). It was fascinating.

A soccer game was in progress between the pigeon market and the imposing city wall. Few paid attention, though. They were all about pigeons.

The pigeon market by a soccer field and beyond that, the ancient city walls. 

VIDEO: I caught a few minutes of exercise before we visited the Tekfur palace. Narration by our wonderful guide, Elif.

Our next stop was the newly-restored Tekfur Palace, a Byzantine palace where artists once created colorful ceramic tiles for the Ottomans through the Renaissance and beyond.

Who knew? I’d never even heard of it. From the ramparts we saw the city wall marching down to the Marmara Sea.

Our big treat on the third day was a cooking class at Cooking Alaturka. We were welcomed by a Sicilian chef, Roco, who offered us drinks and conversation before explaining our menu—five mezes (appetizers) and what they called the most lethal of Turkish desserts, künefe. I couldn’t have been happier, as mezes are my favorite part of every Turkish meal.

Peggy and Scott separate grape leaves for sarma.


Marnie and Tony contemplate the task of peeling chickpeas for humus.

Roco’s assistant chef Nazlı handed out aprons and had us wash our hands before she led us through the intricacies of making sarma (grape leaves wrapped tightly around a mixture of rice, currants, and spices).

Nazli instructs Marnie as she prepares filling for the sarma (stuffed grape leaves).

We also prepared grilled eggplant salad (my long-time favorite), spiced lentil “meatballs,” Circassian chicken, and baked hummus. The künefe was a cheesy, creamy, buttery dessert that crunched with every bite. It’s shredded pasta (a little like shredded wheat, only finer and white), a quarter pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a quarter pound of string cheese, lemon and water. Jerry said it was delicious. I had to pass on that because of a milk allergy. They baked stuffed figs for me, so I did get some dessert.

Voila! Our mezes on display with Roco and Nazli at the back of the kitchen.

Let me tell you, my greatest challenge was wrapping softened grape leaves around a tiny dab of spiced rice.

Scott, Peggy, Jerry, and Tony takle the finite task of rolling the sarma.

The next worst was peeling hot eggplant straight off the grill. Wait—maybe it was peeling a big bowl of cooked chickpeas. Well, whatever was worst, it was well worth the effort. The payoff for all our work was a fabulous meal—with wine. YUM!!!