Turkish bath in Ciragan Palace, Istanbul: Hamam for beginners

I'm almost embarrassed to admit I've reached the middle of my third decade as a card-carrying Turk without having experienced a traditional Turkish bath (hamam). In fact, the folks at Ciragan Palace, the former Ottoman palace turned luxury Kempinski property where I am staying seem just as embarrassed for me.

"You mean you've really never had one?" the spa therapist asks me for the umpteenth time, incredulous that such an oversight could have occurred in our lifetime.

Despite never having been, I have many horrific memories of my mother recounting her experiences in them, such as the neighbourhood elder who would swing her large, pendulous breasts over her shoulders to scrub the dirt underneath, and the meddling mum who poked and prodded all the naked young women who had recently become of "marriageable age" to check whether they were meaty enough for her sons.

It was the done thing then, of course; although built ostensibly to give locals a place to cleanse in line with the Muslim faith, in Ottoman times in particular, hamams became the country's social hot spots where meetings were conducted, marriages arranged and gossip broadly circulated.  

Rather than take my chances at Istanbul's more historic – and more traditional – hamams where "mechanical-grip massages" have a reputation for leaving you black and blue, I decide the hamam at Ciragan's Sanitas Spa might be a better fit for me. 

The tears start unexpectedly five minutes later.

Although it looks like an authentic Turkish bath with a large gobektas (marble slab) centred in a marble room, its spa menu features  words like "Abhyanya" and "St Barth" which serve to make me feel safe and hopeful that the treatment will be something that could best be described as "Hamam Lite".

My therapist asks me to strip down to a towel before ushering me into a sauna. "A 15-minute steam will help soften the skin before I scrub," she says, happily leaving the "it off" section of that sentence. Once my time is up, she leads me into the steamy hamam, lays me down on a hot wet towel on the marble slab and  begins pouring hot water all over my body – naked save for a small towel draped between my legs. She is wearing a short white dress that is getting soaked and, for a moment, I feel like I'm trapped in the opening scene of a porno. I look up at her but she's busily getting her products together.

The tears start unexpectedly five minutes later as she begins to wash my hair and I clock the jug which is identical to the one my mother used to lovingly wash me with when I was a child – a long forgotten memory. Mercifully, my therapist doesn't see (or kindly ignores) the waterworks as she scolds me for using body lotion that morning. "If you know you are going to a Turkish bath, you should not use moisturiser for at least two days prior."

She says it prevents dead skin from coming away with the loofah but I'm inclined to disagree. She scrubs me with such vigour, I'm fairly certain she not only collects all the dead skin, but lots of live skin as well.That said, my skin is glowing and I feel remarkably refreshed.

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A soaping with what looks like a large, muslin pillowcase case full of suds follows. My therapist drapes it up and down so the suds cover me like a giant cream puff. She rub the suds into my skin which is lovely – until she rubs my breasts and I make an awkward joke about perhaps buying her a drink first. It's only after I say it that I realise she's probably heard it countless times. 

One heavenly massage and some serious water-boarding by way of that copper jug over my face later, I am deposited at the reception with a glass of tea and a friendly smile.

"You did well," she tells me as she leaves but I'm not so certain. "How was it?" my husband asks. "I'm unsure if I should pay or press charges," I reply.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION 

goturkey.com.

GETTING THERE 

Emirates flies to Istanbul via Dubai 21 times a week from Sydney. See emirates.com/au.

STAYING THERE

Rooms at Ciragan Palace Kempinski, Istanbul, start from $865 a night for a Park View Room. Ciragan Caddessi, 2, Besiktas, Istanbul. See kempinski.com.

The writer and her family were guests of Ciragan Palace Kempinski.

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