If I had wanted to take my sister to a typical hamam experience, at least as I have grown to know them, I would have taken her to one of my neighborhood spots -the famous Üsküdar hamam, in which I have whiled away many hours, or maybe a place up in Sariyer -but my sister doesn’t live in Istanbul and is a little queasy when a place doesn’t look like any spa or salon she’s been to in the States; she doesn’t have the same taste for letting it roll with how the locals do it as I do. Most importantly, she’s never been to a hamam before.
So it was for those reason that I took her to the newly restored Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam in Tophane, a very historic hamam with separate hours for men and women, though rarely at those to which I had been. I’d watched the area around the hamam -Karaköy - go from dormant and questionable to flourishing and hip over the years, and so it was with a quiet anticipation after having checked out the pictures and information of the hamam online, that I made a reservation for my sister and I.
This is where things go slightly wrong and where the guest to Kılıç Ali should be advised -don’t show up expecting an appointment after having booked one the night before and without having received a reservation confirmation. The hamam is very popular. We ended up having to rebook after we arrived, in the rain, and then when we did return a few days later at our appointed day and time, were told that our appointment time was an hour after we had definitely booked it for. I have a feeling that a group of Scandinavian tourists who arrived just a few minutes before us had somehow bumped us out of our spot.
To have to kill an hour was annoying, but to sit outside and drink the hamam’s cafe’s superbly tasty homemade lemonade was pleasurable, as was the eventual offering of sherbet inside the warm hall before we departed for the changing rooms lofted above the main room (also known as the cold room) and wrapped their wonderfully soft peshtemal around our bodies, donning modern hamam slippers that were far nicer than the hard plastic ones at any of my local joints.
We were lead into the hot chamber of the hamam through the intermediary chamber, where we had disrobed. My sister, not knowing Turkish, would later tell me that she felt like she was being lead around like a puppy in that she didn’t know what would happen nor what the hamam attendants were saying. Hers knew enough to learn her name. Being lead is part of the fun in any hamam, though usually after one has the luxury of throwing water over one’s own head with a plastic basin while gossiping and then lying on the hot marble slab to allow time -and one’s body-to melt.
This would not be the case at Kılıç Ali. Tagged like deer with bracelets that had numbers on a hard plastic, the movements through the hamam seemed timed to get us out before the next batch of bathers was lead in. Water was scooped on our heads from the marble basins with beautiful engraved copper bowls that had been gilded silver, the like of which I had only seen in shops and for sale in the cool rooms of the local hamams. Everything in the central chamber was pure white, except for the water stains around the hexagonal light openings covered with curved glass in the domes, which sweat nearly as much as the bathers.
We were shortly lead to the large marble slab in the center of the room, where we lay long enough to begin to feel that delicious dizziness one feels in a hamam, though not long enough to be allowed to throw the cool water on ourselves and begin heating up all over again since each bather was recalled from their spot on the slab to another çeşme in the hot room by tag. I could hear the attendants at one point arguing over which bather belonged to whom by virtue of her number.
When I was brought to the fountain to be washed instead of being washed on the slab as is done in every hamam I’ve been to, my not so friendly attendant didn’t respond to my Turkish and in fact insisted on continuing in her limited English, and so after a while I gave up trying, though we both would have been better served conversing in the national language. It struck me then that while body language is quite effective in directing someone to raise an arm, that the place with its aims at an upmarket, foreign clientele should have attendants in the baths themselves that were at least fluent enough in English to truly serve. After all, these tourists were used to wait staff fluent sometimes in seven languages at their hotels, or at the least in two, so why did the haute service not continue in this lovingly restored wonder of architecture?
Back at the fountain with my back to the wall, my attendant began swinging what looked like a pillow of foam back and forth, the pillow inflating as she went, the frothy stuff then deposited on my collarbone and torso so that she could start scrubbing off the dirt of the city. While my sister eventually went off to be massaged by a very professional masseuse in another room (which she said was so good she nearly fell asleep on the table), I went out to the cold room again, swathed by other attendants in an encompassing thick towel, my hair wrapped in a separate towel above my head. The other bathers were spread like white blooming flowers against the white couches with large grass green pillows against the sides of the room, and as I joined them I thought this visual had been thought out too, along with the ala franga bathroom cleverly tucked in a corner of the cold room delicately scented with a Molten and Brown essential oil.
While I was as passed out as anyone else in the gorgeous space, I felt a pang at the biggest missing piece of the experience: Chatting for hours in the hot room’s space with a friend, passing in and out of rooms with çeşme to dash more water on one’s body to stay cool, dishing out important girl talk out over hours, leaving only when one had felt time had escaped too far and that the skies were likely dark. Yes, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam was beautiful and relaxing, but in the end the heart of the hamam experience, which was in truly leaving the world behind and returning to another time with a good friend, had never grown in the owner’s best-laid restoration plans.