Pain and pleasure - the inside story on what really happens in one of Istanbul's famous Turkish baths
Part of the beauty in travelling is the strong sense of foreboding and expectancy distilled from unfamiliar situations where you just don’t know what the hell is supposed to happen next. Such was the case as I approached the entrance to the three-hundred-year-old Cağaloğlu Turkish baths sandwiched between two tatty office buildings in central Istanbul.
Inside, after choosing the most expensive item on the menu I had hoped for dusky maidens nursing away my anxieties with celestial sponges, perhaps popping the odd grape in my mouth for good measure. I was wrong.
A moustached hybrid of Les Dawson and Saddam Hussain thrust a pair of wooden clogs towards me and pointed in the direction of a little cabana. I was instructed to disrobe and then conceal my meat and two kebab in a thin, and frankly inadequate, pink sarong. Some foreign visitors wear swimming costumes but I found out that this isn’t necessary as the men’s and women’s sections are completely segregated. From the camekan (entrance hall) I passed through the soğukluk (towel room) to a small door that opened into the hararet (hot room).
As I was the sole steam-ee I wondered what to do next and opted to lie on a raised marble platform that occupied the centre of the tepid chamber. I watched as water droplets fell from the dome some five metres above, echoing eerie drips as they narrowly missed my head.
Two more customers shuffled in before my calm was to be shattered irreparably. A door creaked open and a curled finger summoned me to the other side of the octagonal marble podium.
Saddam Dawson dug chubby fingers deep into my shoulders and arms as I lay prostrate forcing a smile. Dressed in a matching sarong he looked like a deflating sumo. A point must have been reached where his sadistic tendencies had been satisfied and I was led to one of the basins where scalding water was scooped over my head with a copper bowl. A brisk scrubbing with a coarse mitt followed, interspersed with cascades of cold water. My ability to breathe evaporated under the shock.
Any remaining breath flew from my lungs as now, as I lay face down, he climbed onto my back and used me as a bathmat, forcing a spinal drumroll with pair of size 12s. With the stature of an amoeba I slithered back to the sanctuary of the central slab where I melted into the marble until dehydration got the better of me.
Exiting the main room, I found my protagonist lying in wait. He yanked off my wrap and quickly mummified me in a profusion of towels before I had time to flee. Muffled and turbaned, I was seated back in the camekan with a bottle of water while Les looked on expectantly.
After I'd changed and handed soggy towels and wrap to him, Les was unashamedly brash, holding his hand out and barking, 'You tip, you tip.' I handed him the equivalent of £2 and emerged into the bustle of Istanbul bearing a number of sensations. These included bewilderment and a certain satisfaction that I had escaped with no permanent disability.
But most of all I felt cleansed. Totally and utterly refreshed and invigorated, inside and out. Impurities had fled, grime had dissolved, toxins had taken a hike. I felt as virtuous as an angel – albeit a slightly bruised one.