One of the most enjoyable parts of travel is to try out new experiences. Your senses are heightened by new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. But it can be a little daunting for some of us, especially if you’re pushing yourself past your normal comfort zone.
Something that can be challenging is your first hammam, more commonly known as a Turkish bath. I’d like to guide you through the process so that it’s more of a pleasure than a surprise.
I’ve been (mostly) enjoying the hammam experience for almost 25 years. I say “mostly” because I’ve had the odd surprise and found out the hard way that it pays to do just a little research. Basically – not all hammam are created equal.
My most recent experience was the best to date and that’s down purely to doing the research.
The first thing to know is that your experience will vary according to which country you’re in, whether it’s a private hammam or in a hotel and the level of service they’re able to offer.
For example in many tourist areas you’ll find tours to the local Turkish bath emporium. These are usually cheap and cheerful involving a quick visit to the hammam (steam room) with a scrub down and massage using bubbles to help exfoliate and clean the skin. There is then an option to have an oil massage. And this is where things vary enormously.
It’s important to check whether you’ll have access to a private room or whether you’ll be massaged en masse. The latter isn’t as common but still occurs, so please check before you book anything!
Clothing is not optional
You may be wondering what to wear. The main benefit of a hammam is to clean the skin. To leave it fresh and ready to take a nice, even tan. You’ll want your back to be scrubbed and so I’d always recommend a bikini, or at least tankini, over a one-piece. It also means that if you choose the oil massage, you won’t have to have someone help you wriggle out of your top half, face down, when it’s time to have your back done.
A basic Turkish bath will involve your being left to steam quietly for a while, then being scrubbed down with a rough mitt. This will remove all the dead skin cells from your body. Then there will usually be a bubble massage. Hard to describe and to this day I don’t know how they make the bubbles except that it involves a pillowcase and soap. But there are mountains of bubbles which will be worked into your skin prior to being rinsed off with warm water. You will be squeaky clean and ready for your best tan ever!
I should mention that – again – your experience may vary. In many places there will be a shower for you to rinse off the dead skin cells and then the bubbles. But equally you may be rinsed off by the attendants using metal bowls dipped into lukewarm water. Equally nice and probably more thorough. When they get to your head – tip your face forward and keep your eyes and mouth firmly shut. It should feel refreshing but if your attendant is a large septuagenarian man as I once had, it may feel closer to having your mum rinse the shampoo off your head and straight into your eyes!
And speaking of old men, this brings me to
Be aware that in many tourist areas, the person offering your Turkish bath will be a man. I’ve been searching for female only hammam for some time in Turkey and only last year found one. It is a much more relaxing experience.
That said I’ve also tried a hammam in Tunisia when I made the mistake of wearing a one-piece. This was not the kind of hammam I was used to in Turkey. Rather than lying down on a marble slab in the middle of a specialised room I was sat in a steam room very similar to the one at my local swimming pool. Including the menthol smell. This tiny Tunisian woman who didn’t speak English pointed at my swimsuit. I had no clue. She pointed again. Still nothing.
I should have known. Sitting there beside a Dutch couple who watched with interest and, I believe, spite, she grasped the top of my swimsuit and hauled it down to waist level.Cue gales of laughter from the Dutch couple. The old woman obviously wanted me to have a proper scrub down and was not prepared to negotiate. So – as previously mentioned – wear a bikini!
Before you curl up in horror at the thought – this was an anomaly. But be aware and ask questions first.
Overall I’d say that, while there’s been the odd moment, mostly it’s been a fun experience and, stepping out of a hammam, my skin has never felt so wonderful. So, give it a go. Whatever happens, it will, at the very least, be an experience worth relating when you return home.
Have you any interesting hammam stories? Please let me know – I’d love to hear them!