Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Destination Life: Istanbul -- A Turkish Delight

For my first Destination Life blog, I have chosen this year’s must visit city (according to the Observer) and the European City of Culture 2010 — Istanbul. But because this column is about doing things, rather than waxxing lyrical on the nightlife or the fabulous food or the fact that it is possible to dine on two continents, I am going to concentrate on two very Turkish things — Turkish Delight and a Turkish Bath. Istanbul is the best place to experience both.
The first place I encountered Turkish Delight is when Edmund in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe asks for some from the White Witch. I used to wonder why, particularly when my first taste was of a rather flavourless stale piece. Turkish Delight is the English name for lokum. However, if you happen to have some in Istanbul, particularly at the original lokum shop which dates from the 18th century, Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, it becomes apparent why it is such a favourite and Edmund was addicted to it. Made correctly, it is intensely flavoured, melt in the mouth and wonderfully sweet without being cloying. It has no fat and is not chocolate. There are a number of flavours -- rose happens to be my favourite. However the ones with nuts are equally as good. It is a matter of tasting to discover which one you personally like.
The shop is hard to find as it is not in the Spice Bazaar but rather in a little street behind in the Spice Market. Face the Spice Market with the Galata Bridge behind you. Go up the right hand side of the outside of the Spice Market, on the Hamidiye Caddesi corners you will discover another excellent lokum and bakery that has been going since the 19th century , Hafiz Mustafa Sekerlemeleri. If lokum is not your sweet of choice, they do a wide select ion of baklava. It has a huge sign over the door giving the date. Turn left and your right hand side, you will discover Ali Mudiddin Haci Bekir. They do tastings, so you can try before you buy. It is possible to get it in the UK and the US at speciality shops, but the best Turkish Delight is eaten as fresh as possible. It is also possible to find lokum at one of the many stalls within the Spice Bazaar itself.
After going around the Spice Bazaar (the Grand Bazaar is claustrophobic but the Spice Market is full of wondrous smells to tantalize the senses), a Turkish bath can be in order. Of the oldest two Turkish baths in Istanbul, I recommend the Cagaloglu Hamman. It is probably the more famous and although slightly more expensive, the women’s side as well as the men’s side has lovely little cabins with sofas (camekan) where you store your things. At the Cemerlitas Hamman, women only get lockers. Equally at the Cagaloglu, I found they were far more willing to explain the process which can seem confusing and the masseuses also seemed more pleasant. However, Cagaloglu is strictly cash only and the Cemerlitas does take credit cards. According to one of the guidebooks I read, the Cemerlitas also does discounts for students with International Student Cards. The Cemerlitas did appear to be busier when I went but that could have been simply the time of day.
The bath itself is almost a direct take from a Roman bath, including the domed ceilings with star cut outs. Because of the Islamic devotion to cleanliness, Turkish baths flourished whereas Roman baths in the West were shut down. Before going to Istanbul, I had often read about a Turkish bath but had never experienced one. After I returned, I happened to read an old Victoria Holt, and it was immediately obvious that she had never experienced a proper Turkish bath. It is a bath as you wash rather than soak in a bathtub or pool of water.
After stripping down (many women do wear a pair of knickers) you proceed to the Hot room carrying your personal scrubbing mitt and soap. In the hot room, you are encouraged to pour bowls of water over you. While you are doing this, it is possible to converse, to day dream or simply to people watch. Because both of the historic baths are on the tourist trail, many of the women in the Bath are first timers and it is interesting see how they relax and suddenly become comfortable within their own skin and body shape. Equally it is interesting to have it happen to you. This is also helped by the way, the massuses bustle about, pouring water on themselves and how they simply get on with their job.
After awhile, the masseuse beckons and you go and lay on a raised marble platform where you are scrubbed within an inch of your life. You may have showered in the hotel that morning, but here, layers of skin come off. The masseuse then massages your body, concentrating on the arms and legs. There is no piped music but occassionally one of the masseuses bursts into song. Your hair is washed for you and then you are led to the shower where you rinse down. By the time, it is over, you are wonderfully relaxed. Your feet have ceased to hurt and you have ceased to care about your near naked state. I was not surprised to learn that during the Ottoman period, the public baths were used by women scouting out for wives for their sons. You then return to your cabin. You can rest if you wish or you can dress. They do have hair dryers.
The whole experience is rounded off by a glass of something at the bar/cafe. A waterpipe or hooka stood in the corner and backgammon was set up near a well cushioned couch. A cat was asleep on the cushions and opened one eye when we came in. The waiter was dressed in a traditional Ottoman garb, complete with red tasselled fez. Fresh orange or pomegranate juice helps restore your equilibrium. But they do Turkish coffee and a number of different snacks. It is an experience to be savoured rather than rushed.
Everyone should experience a proper Turkish bath at least once in their life. And if you happen to go to Istanbul, make the time to visit a proper hamman.
Michelle Styles's latest release in North America --Sold & Seduced does feature a Roman bath. One of Michelle's great pleasures in life is travelling, but travelling is about more than going somewhere. It is about experiencing life.


  1. I've wanted to go to Istanbul for years and years, Michelle. Thank you for this piece and your own on your blog about your visit there. Now I have more reasons to want to go -- but at least I had a vicarious visit first through yours!

  2. Oh I am glad you want to go, Anne. You should. It is fantastic. I was v impressed.

  3. Fab post Michelle! I love how you said that travel is about experience and not just going somewhere.

  4. It sounds an incredible experience, and one you've described so vividly.

  5. Wow you've bought Istanbul to life! I want to go and explore all tose exciting places. Caroline x

  6. I am pleased everyone liked it.
    Istanbul is one of those places that is wonderfully do able.