All of the Turks with whom we spoke reacted with horror when we expressed interest in going to a Turkish Bath (hamam): “You’ll come out dirtier than when you went in”; “They are for poor travelers to the city”; “A 200 lb. hairy Turkish guy will scrub you raw”; “Anyone with money who wants a Turkish bath has one built in his house.” None had been to a public hamam at any time during their lives (ranging from 40 to 80 years old).
While visiting the best carpet shop in Istanbul, the proprietor, Ahmet Sengor, told us about a “hotel hamam” that would be clean and, more importantly, staffed with lithe Russian beauties. “It is out near the airport in the Polat Renaissance Hotel. They also have a nice gym.”
Our day began at an Istanbul Biennial art exhibit featuring a Chinese installation of an expedition that went to saw off the top 1.86 meters of Mt. Everest. Next stop was Nisantasi where the girls looked at $10,000 necklace/earring combos and I photographed the cow sculptures dotting the sidewalks. We fought our way through heavy traffic to Beyti, the kebab restaurant favored by heads of state (obligatory letter from Bill Clinton on wall) and visiting business executives. After Mallory ate delicately, Oya reasonably, and I gluttonously, Oya’s driver delivered us to the hotel. Oya did not wish to break her lifelong trackrecord of hamam-free bathing and wished us well.
Mallory went into the women’s section with a trim middle-aged Turkish woman in a neat uniform with what turned out to be a bikini underneath. I went into the men’s section with a thin white towel around my waist and was soon met by a short hairy 200 lb. Turkish guy, naked from the waist up wearing a similar towel. He would be doing the scrubbing, which necessitates forceful pulling of arms and holding of heads while dousing the customer with water.
The details of the bath itself are best forgotten. For a better idea of what it was like, rent the Borat movie and watch the scene where Borat and his producer fight in their hotel.
Oya told us that to get the maximum benefit from the hamam one must stay for an hour or two afterwards to let the moist heat open up the pores in the skin. Mallory was hot and I was fat so we decided to move on to the exercise portion of our visit to the Polat Renaissance.
The gym is as nice as any gym in the United States, with banks of clean new machines, an indoor pool, three hot tubs, and an outdoor pool with a patio overlooking the Sea of Marmara. Sadly the outdoor pool isn’t heated and we were advised that it was shockingly cold. A girl in the weight room explained why the place was so empty at 6 pm: “People don’t come here until after work. If they leave their office at 6 the traffic is so bad that they might not get here until 8. People therefore usually stay downtown until 7 and make it here by 8:15 or 8:30.” What does it cost to be a member of such a nice gym? $300 per month (Turkish bath plus exercise for a day tourist was $120). What about salaries at her company, a clothing manufacturer downtown? The seamstresses get paid about $550 per month.