Istanbul gets right under the skin

Turkish delight ... a traditional hammam in Instanbul.
Turkish delight ... a traditional hammam in Instanbul. Photo: Alamy

Lying half naked atop a marble slab beneath the dome of a building that's hundreds of years old, I have a surprising experience. It has little to do with being without my clothes in front of strangers, or even to do with relishing the occasionally discombobulating experience of being in a strange city on the other side of the world by myself. No, it has to do with shedding layers of dead skin.

Visiting a traditional hammam in Istanbul is the one experience everyone recommends (although it certainly couldn't be classed as a "pampering" spa experience), along with gorging on Turkish delight and arguing with crafty sellers who ply you with apple tea so you buy one of their rugs in the kaleidoscopic-coloured bazaars.

"You won't believe what they can scrape off," one friend tells me before I leave, her eyes wide with intense enjoyment at how disgusting her story is. "Like peeling a potato," she says.

There's little that's relaxing about a hammam - an Arabic word for the spreader of warmth. Left to sweat on the marble rather like a juicy roast, it becomes apparent that bodies are awfully surprising.

The hammams are segregated into female and male sections and I'm surrounded by women at all stages of life. It doesn't take long before I'm filmy with sweat and the woman who's going to give me a traditional scrub and soap has decided I'm cooked enough.

My friend is right; it does look like potato peelings. I feel a perverse kind of pride.

"Turn," she commands, her enormous, pendulous breasts swinging dangerously close to my face. She wears a towel around her middle. Her body is almost as wide as it is long and her face is hardened with work. Her eyes are soft though.

She throws buckets of soapy water over me and, with a rough mitten called a kese, she picks up my various limbs and proceeds to unceremoniously rub me raw.

"Turn," she says again. I obey quickly. I'm hot and burning. I feel pickled. The woman shows me what she has scraped off my body in her hands. My friend is right; it really does look like potato peelings.

I feel a perverse kind of pride in the gruesomeness of it. Bodies are strange, I think, and occasionally disgusting.

After rinsing me, the woman tells me to sit by one of the ornate taps and she begins to wash my hair. It's not like being at a chi-chi Sydney hairdresser, where hipster types ask if the water temperature is acceptable and gently massage my scalp and ask about my day. My hair is pulled and rubbed quickly. It's as though I'm five years old and I feel like crying because shampoo is in my eyes. Nobody has washed my hair with this kind of gruff tenderness in a long time.

After several days of trudging about solo in a strange and delightful city, where there is colour and noise and overwhelming heat, I feel happy. Surprisingly, I feel safe and peaceful. And, oh boy, my skin - bright pink and glowing - has never felt so smooth.

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