My masseur weighed no less than 120kg, had more hair on his back than an oversized yak and wore nothing but a woven mat about the dimensions of a tea towel. All fine until the moment he slapped my bare arse with a foam-lathered loofah and grunted: “OK, roll over.”
This wasn’t exactly in the job description as a travel writer, nor was gracing the rest of my tour group with a view of my exposed front, also lathered in foam. But no visit to Turkey would be complete without a visit to a hammam, or Turkish bath, and after the initial fear of exposing yourself to others, it’s an experience that leaves the sauna at your local gym for dead.
Starting with a stint in the steamy communal bath house to sweat out the dirt and grime, a session at a hammam lasts the best part of a day. After steaming comes a soapy rubdown with the loofah, and the beefy masseurs – known as tellak – love dishing out a good pummelling. Then it’s time for another rinse and a strong massage.
The history of the hammam is a good yardstick for the story of Turkey itself, a fascinating moderate Islamic country which bridges Europe and the Middle East.
The Turkish bath was first introduced by the Romans and adopted by the Byzantines. It remained popular during the Ottoman Empire and today it is still a part of daily life for many Turks. The country itself has been home to dozens of civilisations from the first Stone Age settlements to the wealth and glory of the Ottoman Empire. It’s seen more bloody battles than a Braveheart movie, from the Trojan War to the Holy Crusades and more recently the infamous Anzac battle at Gallipoli in 1915.
“The world is like a puzzle. If you want to open, Turkey is the pin – press it and all the world’s history is open to you,” says our Turkish guide and former university lecturer, Mehmet.
And he’s right. Travelling through Turkey, you can walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great or the knights of the Crusades thanks to more well-preserved ancient cities than you could shake a sandal at.
At Pamukkale in Turkey’s south-west, the ruins of a vast Roman city called Hierapolis contain hundreds of sarcophagi dating back to before Christ. There are also vast thermal reserves in the area that the Romans harnessed for hot baths and an entire mountainside covered in snow-white calcium deposits.
The ruins are impressive, but it’s only a warm-up for Ephesus on the Aegean coast – probably the best-preserved Roman city on the eastern Mediterranean. Here, you can stroll the marble boulevard and check out intricately carved statues of Hercules and Medusa, sit in the Grand Theatre and wander the rows of marble columns at the Library of Celsus. About 7000 years ago the city was packed with half a million people reaping the riches from its location at the end of the Silk Road.
Three hours north lies another ancient city, Pergamum. The remains aren’t as spectacular, but the tale is. The peace-loving citizens threw themselves en masse from the city walls when they were invaded by the Arabs.
Troy is perhaps the most famous historical city, thanks to Brad Pitt and the eponymous movie. At the entrance there’s a replica Trojan horse, but the real interest lies in exploring the remains of 12 different civilisations, built one on top of the other as the city was conquered and lost through the ages.
As is the case with most travel experiences, the most memorable moments are spent with the locals. They love a chinwag, a dance and a glass of their potent national drink, Raki. Walk round the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and you’ll be invited into shop after shop for tea – or more. “If you marry me I will give you 40 camels,” says one jewellery merchant, bantering with an Aussie blonde.
It’s a generous offer, and if it came with a daily hammam, you might want to consider it.
● Trevor Paddenburg travelled to Turkey with On The Go 020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com). Tours range from 4-19 days starting at £199 including hotels, guide and some meals
Often mistaken for the Turkish capital – which is Ankara -, Istanbul is a city that’s very hard to describe without resorting to the worn phrase, East meets West. It’s also where Europe meets Asia and modern culture blends with history dating back to BC and beyond. No visit to the former capital of the Western Roman Empire – called Constantinople before it was conquered and renamed by the Turks in the 15th century – is complete without a look at the following:
The sprawling palace that was home to the 36 Ottoman Empire
sultans. Check out the sultan’s bed, big enough to fit at least seven concubines in at once, as well as the circumcision room, the skull and bones of John the Baptist and the 86-carat Spoonmaker diamond.
Walk from one side to the other and you’re crossing from Europe to Asia. Built in 1974, at the time it was the second largest suspension bridge in the world at just over 1km – it’s now the fifth largest.
The city’s most famous landmark was a church and then a mosque, as Istanbul was lost and conquered. Now, it’s officially a museum. It’s scale is mind-blowing: the massive central dome is 57m high and big enough to house a football field. It took 10,000 workers just 17 years to build in the 4th century.
The Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque but Muslims were not happy that it was once a church, so Sultan Ahmet I commissioned a replica. However, its central dome crashed three times during construction and the sultan had to settle for a 46m high dome. It’s impressive nonetheless, and used by thousands every day for prayer.
THE CULINARY EXPERIENCE
The Turks originated from the nomads of Mongolia, who found it tough whipping up a gourmet meal with just a few pots and a camp fire. Still, modern-day Turkey has evolved to offer some delicious cuisine.
The Turkish staple, you can get kebabs on every street corner, and they’re a hell of a lot tastier than the dodgy meat wraps you tend to buy at 2am after a night on the Snakebites in London. There’s the standard lamb or chicken, or you can go gourmet and order the ‘Iskender’, which comes with mint and yoghurt.
Turkey’s most famous tasty treat is actually heralded as an aphrodisiac. The Ottoman Empire sultans had up to 400 concubines and needed every ounce of strength they could muster. Apparently the sweet treats – made with up to 41 different spices and ingredients including saffron, honey, sesame, pistachio, chestnut, melon and even caviar – were just the thing before a raging night in the bedroom.
A local spirit made from aniseed that tastes a bit like super-strength Sambuca, the Turks love nothing more than knocking back a few Rakis after a meal. It is diluted 50-50 with water, and the clear spirit mysteriously turns milky white when the water is added. Be warned – it’s 45 per cent proof and the Turks don’t call it lion’s milk for nothing.
SINGLE IN SIGMA
Potential brides are easy to spot in the town of Sigma. Parents with eligible daughters cement a Coke bottle to the chimney of the family house so passing suitors can spot the signal and pop in for a Turkish coffee and a chat.
Successful men have to throw stones and smash the bottle to let other interested males know they’ve missed the boat. The tradition dates back centuries but these days it’s isolated to a handful of towns, including Sigma, on the Aegean Coast.
DID YOU KNOW
The Dutch claim the tulip as their national flower but their first bulbs came from Turkey, where the flower also grows in abundance.
According to legend, the Dutch sent the Turkish sultan the gift of a beautiful virgin. Keen to reciprocate the gesture, the sultan sent a load of tulip bulbs. The Dutch king, thinking they were worthless, threw them out the window along with the contents of his chamber pot. In the fertile mix, the bulbs soon blossomed and the Dutch have loved tulips ever since.