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.

Kapadokya is Cappadocia

Want to know how kind the Turks are? This street sign is clear evidence:

Protect those precious beasts!

DİKKAT YAVAŞ means “ATTENTION. GO SLOWLY.”Sweet, huh? Most of the dogs and cats in Turkey run free, and people feed them everywhere. You’ll never see a starving animal in Turkey. That’s kindness.

Our third Turkish city was Göreme, my favorite of Cappadocia’s cities. I have to admit, though, it’s changed. The sleepy little town I visited twelve years ago is now a thriving metropolis, but I still love it. We stayed in the Kelebek Cave Hotel, and most of us had luxurious rooms. So different from the backpacker’s paradise it was fifteen years ago. Everyone raved about their accommodations (sitting rooms and huge bathrooms), and a few of us entertained resident cats as well. (Don’t leave your windows open.)

Our little living room in the Kelebek, complete with two wing-back chairs and a fireplace.

We were awakened at 6 AM by the whoosh-whoosh of balloons skimming over the hotel—150 of them. Our guide explained that so many balloons every day have a huge impact on the environment and have driven off many animals and raptors. He said he hasn’t seen an eagle in years.

Jini toasts the ballooners with a morning cup of java. Filtered at the Kelebek!

Breakfast at the Kelebek is phenomenal—a vast array of olives (my favorite), vegetables, fruits, eggs, cheeses meats, breads and custom-made eggs and omelets. Fresh-squeezed orange juice puts it over the top. It was also our first hotel with actual filtered coffee rather than Nescafe instant. Woo-woo!

Breakfast here is beyond belief. You have no idea!

The first day was a whirlwind. Our guide Mehmet brought us up to Uç Hısarı to visit the cave home of Ismael, a sweet man who looked 80. I guessed (I thought Kindly) that he was 75, and he finally said he was 61. Evidence that Turks age faster. Tougher life?


Talk about compound nouns!

Ismael was a warm and willing host.

At any rate, we all enjoyed sipping tea and touring his family’s home for centuries. It’s now part of a national park reserve, so he has to pay rent to use it as a business. He spent nearly an hour with us, and our guide treated us to tea during his 45-minute lecture on the history of the area. Fascinating, but by the time he finished, we were frozen.

Ismael’s family home was festooned with carpets, kilims and all sorts of charming antiques.

Mehmet understood and took us to a quiet little cave hotel for Turkish coffee, cake, and treats. It was wonderful to see that there are still some serene spots in Cappadocia. With clean toilets, no less.

Türkçe kahvesi, orta, lütfen.

We went from there to the Open Air Museum, a series of ancient cave churches dating back to 1000 AD. Our guide Mehmet had book-size photos of the frescoes inside the churches, which helped us understand what we were seeing. The last time I was there we could take photos, but now it’s forbidden.

Our guide Mehmet prepared us for each of the churches we entered.

We got a big charge out of Asian tourists who love to pose dramatically in front of every site. The Chinese are a generation of singletons, and it shows.

My friend Susie ended up getting a camel ride, though she’s not just sure how. It was a highlight for all of us, though, and we thanked her for a good laugh.

I was a little late arriving on the scene, just in time to see Susie get lots of hugs after they finally wrestled her camel back down and pulled her off.

All camels are not beautiful.

We all went from there to the Dibek Restaurant, a lovely little spot in Göreme that’s one of my favorites. We were joined by Chris Vannoy, the owner of our tour company, and together we enjoyed a lunch of all the local dishes, served family style: mezes, çoban salata (shepherd’s salad), fasuliye (beans with lamb), mantı (tiny Turkish ravioli in a spiced yogurt sauce), and the crowning glory, testi Kebab (a hot meat dish cooked with vegetables in a pottery container that’s cracked open to serve). Every meal here is finished with either Turkish coffee or tea. Sigh.

Jane and Jane contemplate the historical offerings of the Dibek Lokanta.

We opted out of another tour in favor of a visit to a scenic overlook and then a Turkish winery. I must admit, I was once very critical of Turkish wine, but they’re doing MUCH better—as can be attested to by most of us in the group. With these fabulous lunches, we often end up finishing our day by gathering for snacks and wine (as well as the occasional rakı—the local anise liquor).

And a good time was had by all at the Kocabağ Winery.

The next morning we were up early and it was nice enough to eat breakfast on the outdoor terrace. Sally, Tom, Rondi, Jane and Jane all finagled balloon ride that morning and returned at 7:30, breathless with excitement. Ballooning in Cappadocia is impressive, at the least.

Mehmet and Erdal (our bus driver) picked us up at 8:45 for a visit to an underground city. Apparently there was an ant-colony-like city carved beneath every city in the area, and entire communities would move underground when attackers came, from the Romans to the Hittites to the Mongols. They’d push mammoth wheel-shaped stones over the entrance and sometimes stay underground for months at a time. There were stables, storage rooms, kitchens, and sleeping rooms, usually at least eight levels deep. Amazing. Most of us started the tour, but some of us fled to the surface when we reached down to the second level. Four of our ten finished the tour.

This is as far as I got before claustrophobia hit–level two. Those Cappadocians were brave folks.

Next we drove an hour to the Ihlara Valley for a 3-mile hike along a river. The valley was home for a huge settlement of Christians many centuries ago, and there are about sixteen cave churches along the way. We weren’t so thrilled about the 400 stairs down into the valley (Turkey’s Grand Canyon), but we were entranced with the lovely river walk. We went into three of the churches, which were very much like the ones we’d seen at the Open Air Museum the previous day. Here we could take photos.

The paintings in these churches were quite stunning–hundreds of years old.


Turkish graffiti: Ayşe, Sahin, Selman, Erdal…  Shame on them.

We were served a delicious lunch in outdoor tables along the river. Sojourn Travel included lunches every day on our tour, and their choices have been fabulous. This meal included bread and mezes, lentil soup, a fresh lettuce and vegetable salad, and our choice of fresh trout, köfte (meatballs), chicken shish-ka-bob, or güveç—lamb, beef, or vegetarian. (Güveç is one of my favorite dishes, a baked open casserole of meat and vegetables, often with cheese melted on top.)

Who doesn’t want to eat fresh fish beside a gurgling stream?

We were supposed to tour another cave monastery, but everyone cried “Uncle!” Everyone but Jini, that is. She’s game for anything that requires exercise, but we were toured out. We headed back to the hotel for naps (or hikes), and some of us opted for the Turkish bath. The women’s treatment ($30) included a face mask, a 15-minute sauna, a scrub and soap massage on a heated marble slab, then a shower, a screeching dip in a cool pool (closes the pores?), and finally a glass of apple tea while we relaxed and chatted on lounge chairs. Heaven!

Me, Jini, Jane and Rondi–ready for the Turkish Hamam treatments.

Mercimek (lentil soup), Ayran (a yogurt drink) and pide (mini-pizzas) finished off our evening. Well—except for our wine gathering in the courtyard. Short but sweet.

Oh, how I love the mercimek in Turkey. Lentil soup.

Farewell, Mehmet and your beautiful community!

One final example of Turkish kindness–gendarmes pushing a woman’s car that had stalled on a hill.


From Selçuk to Şirince (Sel-CHOOK to Sheer IN jay)

Çok mutluyuz. We are very happy about our three days in Selçuk, Turkey.

Our lovely room at the Bella (note the towel elephant on the bed.

We were welcomed to the Bella Hotel by Nazmi and Erdal, who remembered us from visits years ago (four of us have been there before). The rooms are sweet, decorated with carved walnut furniture, but the crowning glory is the third floor lounge replete with Turkish cushions and pillows. It overlooks the ruins of St. John’s Church and the Ayasuluk Citadel, a castle-looking fortress.

The comfortable seating on the third floor even had a fireplace, which Nazmi fired up daily for us.

Our upstairs lounge looked out on a stork nest across the street. The huge nest was like a haystack, shared by many smaller birds nesting in the mass of sticks. You can see bird nests hidden beneath Papa Mama?). Mangy in any case.

Mama and Papa Stork took turns minding the nest just across the street from our own aerie.

Because of the April 23rd Children’s Day holiday, most public buildings were festooned with huge flags and pictures of Ataturk, the founder of Turkey. This area of the country is very liberal, supporting secular government over the now-ruling AK Party, which promotes an Islamic government. I expect big changes ahead, as secular mayors have been elected in Ankara and Izmir, and many of us hope that this is a precursor to a broader shift in government. We will see.

The fortress, like every other public building, was festooned with flags (Ataturk in the middle) for the Children’s Day holiday (bayram).

Our first trip was to the House of the Virgin Mary on Easter morning. I used to think it was bunk, but I’ve come to believe that she did, indeed live there. Apparently she fled Jerusalem to save herself and was taken by boat to Ephesus, far away from Roman soldiers. John lived in Ephesus, and he had promised Jesus to protect her. He arranged for the building of a sweet little three-room stone house in an idyllic setting on top of a mountain near Ephesus. There’s some proof that she lived there, and visiting it is a moving experience. Apparently she lived 11 years beyond the death of Jesus, so she would have lived 64 years. She was betrothed at 12, and Jesus lived to 41.

The entrance to the Virgin Mary’s house, one at a time.

Our next stop was Ephesus, one of the world’s finest Roman ruins. You may know that Ephesus is the city criticized by Paul in the book of Ephesians for the people’s decadent lifestyle. It’s a stunning place even now, and we were fortunate to get there before the Easter crowds. Our guide, Rabia, was not only knowledgeable but took wonderful care of us.

Our brilliant guide, Rabia, shares more information than we can begin to absorb.

This was once a port city on the Aegean, but the waterway has been silted in over the years, with the sea receding a full 5 kilometers. Eventually the entire city was abandoned. The upper part of Ephesus was a ruling class area, a center for government and municipal control. They had sophisticated sewer systems, beautiful homes, and stunning marble structures. Little remains, of course, but archeologists are gradually rebuilding some of the structures and columns.

Many of Ephesus’ old columns have been repositioned, but many others were taken away and reused elsewhere in churches, temples, and even mosques.
The famous Ephesus library reconstruction was on our left as we descended into the main part of the city.

After Ephesus we were treated to a lunch of mezes and grilled meat before heading up to St. John’s Church, right across the street from our hotel. Gorgeous. 

Loved this column at St. John’s Church, carved with a Menorah on the bottom, the Maltese cross in the middle, and the Christian cross at the top.

That afternoon our host, Nazmi Bey, treated us to a carpet show followed by a feast of mezes and his homemade wine. We were pleased that his wine was actually quite good—unlike many homemade wines. I think the Turks are getting better at winemaking. It was never their forte (my uneducated opinion, of course).

Nazmi explains the history and symbolism of his carpets.
Big decisions!

The next day we drove up to the picturesque village of Şirince, one of my favorite spots in Turkey. It was once a Greek village, and because it’s very much out of the way, it hasn’t been too commercialized.

Hiking in Şirince just makes me happy!
A local trekking home with his day’s shopping.
The owner of the Nişanyan Hotel in Şirince built a huge tower to protest the government. He also built himself a copy of a Lycian tomb and was imprisoned for his rebellion. (But–he escaped!)

You can still stroll by chickens, goats, and horses as you meander along the stone-paved streets, and women sell hand-made wares, spices and foods along the street. Sadly, many of the homes have been made into hotels and b&b’s, but I guess the world just can’t resist the charm of this lovely village.

A sweet doorway in Şirince.

In Şirince we were treated to a meal of gözleme, which is a thin flatbread cooked like a quesadilla with potatoes, spinach, cheese and meat inside. Yum!

This woman is making gözleme for a local restaurant.
Gozleme. YUM!

Tuesday was Children’s Day in Turkey, a huge holiday for everyone. After breakfast on the terrace we were all free to visit the local shops, the archeological museum, and a tile-painting business down the road. A good time was had by all.

On to Cappadocia…


Street market bargains: briefs for less than a dollar, and boxers, three for $1.75. Eat your heart out.