The Viking Star spent two days with one overnight in Istanbul, Turkey. Susan and I had visited Istanbul twice before, most recently in December of 2019, just before covid destroyed all our travel plans until this year. On previous visits, we have toured the Aya Sofia Cathedral (now a mosque), the Blue Mosque (perhaps the most beautiful mosque I’ve ever seen), and the Topkapi Palace/museum (former residence to many pashas (rulers) during the Ottoman period. Blogs with photos from these previous visits can be found at www.mazerandsmith.com. Our recent two days in Istanbul were rainy and cold. The weather made it the perfect time to visit the hamam (public bath).
I don’t have any photos to show for my amazing visit to an Istanbul hamam. In my very first visit to Istanbul at age twenty-three, I had my first experience in the hamam. The hamam is an institution throughout the Middle East, where running water and plumbing in regular residences was non-existent until modern times. Hamams are still visited for the pleasant experience as well as being a regular social meeting place for men and women. Thus, men and women (at separate days and times) continue to visit the hamam on a regular basis.
There are many hamams in Istanbul, both ancient and modern. The hamam we visited was built in 1741 and bills itself as the last hamam constructed during Ottoman Empire. The hallway entrance to the hamam has a wall full of photos, old and recent. There are Turkish Pashas (the historic rulers) in their big hats. (Our guide said that the importance of any pasha could be determined by the size of his hat.) Notably, nurse pioneer Florence Nightingale and composer Franz Liszt were on the wall, as well as movie stars such as Harrison Ford, Omar Sharif, Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, and many more. Thus, our visit felt historic.
The building consists of multiple domes with lovely marble baths, including a large platform where the massages (part of the experience) are performed. The baths are heated by the original boiler under the building. I estimate that the temperature inside the baths is above body temperature, but not as hot as a sauna. We were a group of six men and five women, fellow passengers from the ship.
Upon entry we separated into the male and female sides of the hamam. We were shown to private cubicles where we could undress and lock our clothes up. We were given large thin cloth wraps for modesty’s sake. (Middle-Eastern men seem to be very guarded in terms of nakedness.) We were led first to a “sweat room.” This was the closest thing to a sauna. We sat on warm marble benches for fifteen minutes or so. I had the chance to relate my previous hamam experiences to the other guys.
Next, we were led into the main large room with water channels and basins around the side and the large marble platform in the middle of the room. Each of us was attended to by a Turkish masseur. The platform was large enough to accommodate all of us lying on it at the same time. My Turkish masseur began by dousing me alternatively with buckets of warm and cold (not drastically cold) water. He then dipped a towel into a bucket of suds with which he covered by body, first lying on my back, and then on my stomach. He may have used shampoo on my hair…I’m not sure. After applying the suds he rubbed all over my body with an exfoliating loufa (sponge). I felt very clean.
Then came the massage. I’ve experienced quite a few massages in my life…This was not the best I’ve experienced. (The best massages were in Thailand where the art of massage is a national pastime.) But it was sufficiently satisfying to complete the hamam experience. At the end of the massage, he rinsed me again. Finally, he wrapped me in towels, including one like a turban on my head, and along we the other guys we were led out of the hamam into the courtyard room, where we were served hot tea and some kind of alcoholic beverage.
The complete hamam experience lasted a little more than an hour. After we finished drinking our tea, having cooled off in the lower temperature of the courtyard room, we retired to our cubicles to dress. We had paid a fee to the cruise line for the day’s excursion, which also including a visit to a mosque and to the Spice Market. That fee was around $100. I asked what someone coming in “off the street” would pay for this hamam package, and was told sixty Euros, about $75. I assume the cruise line negotiated a group rate lower than the single rate. All in all, it was a very satisfying experience that I would recommend to anyone visiting Istanbul.
Our ship-arranged excursion began with the hamam and continued with a visit to the “New Mosque”. (The New Mosque is not new at all…it is simply the traditional name.) Afterwards, we visited the nearby Spice Market. The famous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul has over three thousand vendors’ stalls, one of the world’s largest covered markets. We did not visit the Grand Bazaar. The Spice Market vendors recognized that many visitors were visiting it instead of the Grand Bazaar, and those visitors might want to purchase goods besides spices. So the Spice Market has slowly begun to offer all kinds of goods. However, Susan and I limited our purchases to spices.
The photos below show some of the beautifully presented displays of goods in the Spice Market.