Beşiktaş Hamami, 8:00 am – 6:00 pm daily, about 14 for wash, 6 for kese/massage.
Approaching the Beşiktaş Hamamı, it could be a storefront, or maybe a service door to the apartment building directly above it. We are greeted with one-story white plaster walls and a doorframe of that all-too familiar Pimapen plastic. There is no “Tarihi” next to the welcome sign. Indeed, who knows what came first, this modest little hamam, or 1950s block apartment building that makes this street look like any other in Istanbul? The Beşiktaş Hamamı is no classically planned Mimar Sinan wonder. We’d say we’ve found our first “urban intervention hamam.”
Here also is the first co-written review of a hamam, perhaps in human history. We (Kirk and Asa) went together. Below is a call-and-response comparison of our experiences.
K: From inside, a wiry old man had his “eyes on the street” and greets us in the entrance passage-way. He is sharp-eyed, balding, and wearing a towel. I am so bold as to step forward and introduce us in Turkish, just so he knows we know what’s going on. Lil’ Baldy seems unfazed. Holding my arm firmly throughout, he explains with direct gestures how to take my shoes off and put them with the other shoes. Then he pulls me into the double-story camekan (salon). There’s a surprising amount of light for being under a building. The glare doesn’t contribute to a protective feel. The men sitting in chairs or in the few dressing rooms on the ground floor are so quiet as to insist that this space, so close to the street, is in fact a sanctuary. After much sidelong staring in our direction by all, Lil’ Baldy consigns us to the second floor dressing rooms. I take it to mean we won’t do anything particularly embarrassing up there.
A: I wasn’t sure if this was actually a hamam. But the older man seemed to understand our thoughts and beckoned us in. There were other men sitting in the rather nondescript changing area. It looked like a bunch of old men hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, chatting, relaxing. Some had come to bathe and were bundled up post bath in towels. Some were just chatting fully clothed. The weather was nasty out, the wintry Istanbul chilly rain, and so it did seem like a perfectly good place to spend the afternoon. As we climbed the stairs to our dressing rooms I noted that things were a bit more ad hoc here. Valuables were just put on some random shelves. There were hooks holding up a broom and other random but useful items. In short, it was entirely functional and utilitarian. Not kept pristine to create some oriental fantasy for the eye of the tourist.
K: After mincing downstairs in tiny rubber slippers and a towel, Lil’ Baldy takes my arm first and pulls me into the sıcaklık (soaking chamber). I’m still wondering how a two-story hamam exists under a building. The giant column in the middle of the soaking room makes it clearer. The room is an oblong rectangle with a flat table in the middle. The column, actually one side of an arch, juts out from one wall and plunks down in the middle of the table. Instead of space to move around, a path runs the perimeter of the room with table on the inside and rinsing station lining the wall on the outside. Corners of the room are chilly, while the table is quite hot. High white walls and small, banded windows keep it pretty light and airy. The effect is to feel somewhat exposed. The room could be a forgotten basement used for washing bodies rather than a central communal space. We rinse for a bit, then look for our keseci.
A: The bath itself, following a somewhat mazelike entry from the warm transitional space to a winding L shaped hot room, was mediocre warm. The göbektaşı, though, was like lying on glowing coals. We both sat near a basin and rinsed ourselves. Then we lay on the hot central marble stone trying to find the coolest peripheries. It was rather like being grilled pleasurably. There was no one else in the bath. Only in the first part of the hot room before it turned a corner, there was a man being kese-ed. There was so much turning and partitioning of space in the hot room, that the hot room felt rather small and intimate, at times even claustrophic – with many private spaces that could be used. I wondered if this was ever taken advantage of. Kirk went to get kese-ed somewhere else (which I found rather interesting that it was done in private). I took his place on the hot stone, which I was sure was cooler than my space. Not by much.
K: I get Lil’ Baldy. He matter-of-factly arranges me on the very hot stone table. Tall hamam-goers, you know my ankle-grinding frustration with a modestly-sized massage table. A thorough yet brief rub-down ensues. No judo, but I do not ask (see Kilis Hamam post for judo specifics). My keseci then leads me back to the scrubbing rooms. They’re a fair warren of floor cubbies delineated by stone tablets. They are also directly across from the bathroom entrance, a slight flaw in the hamam plan by my reckoning. The kese is likewise thorough yet brief. He uses white soap and gives me the familiar ingratiating glare indicating his interest in a tip. Though I’m usually inclined, this hamam had been somewhat mediocre thus far and the kese hadn’t redeemed it. A fantastic kese can redeem the aesthetic faults of any hamam. Lil’ Baldy had been confident and direct, but I hadn’t felt the care and attention of a real usta. Think corner greasy skillet in Manhattan versus country diner. If this hamam served us hashbrown, we’d be lucky to be offered ketchup. Instead of retreating to the soaking room, I stayed in the warm nest-like washing cubbies until Asa was finished.
A: To be honest, I don’t remember my kese that much. This may have been for several reasons. First, I had a hurt hand. Being that I didn’t know exactly why it was injured, I was conscious so as to tell him to not mess with it, “dokunma!” I was scrubbed in the front part of the L, the semi-private partitioned spaces and taken back to the hot stone. The kese wasn’t chatty at all. I thought this odd. Usually when that happens, I become chatty but that still didn’t seem to work. Fair enough. I still felt relaxed. He did not ignore my bad left hand, but worked on it a bit, making me cautious about how that all went. I think he thought that his ministrations would fix whatever was wrong with it. So much for dokunma! Nevertheless, he was trying to be very careful and concerned for its well-being. He finished me on the hot stone part of the bath.
K: Our departure is somewhat of a blur for me. We changed in our upstairs rooms and trundled downstairs. More stares. It seemed like the same men were still looking sidelong out of the downstairs cubbies. Opium den-style? The bill came to about twenty. I left feeling moderately clean but not especially relaxed. The basic elements of hamam service were there, but the institutional architecture and glaring daylight made the spatial experience unpredictable at best.
A: For some reason, I remember the departure more clearly than the rest. After we changed upstairs in our little rooms (I took my time), we came downstairs. The band of old men were still there though they had changed a bit. Kirk was doing a lot of the talking to them. I was rather quiet, and with my one good hand, struggling to put my jacket on and zip it up. I was aware that the two of us projected a classic male duo version of two older/younger friends or brothers: one chatty, acting the more bold and familiar, and appearing taller and stronger, standing all the while (this was Kirk); the other quiet, smiling, somewhat injured, seated on a chair next to his friend (this was me). The bath men took note. They spoke to Kirk the entire time. At one point they spoke about me and my poor hand, sympathetically, still only speaking to him. The elderly bath operator then grabbed my ear with his fingers and tugged at it a little, as grandparents do to their grandsons with great affection. I felt so warm then, carrying this with me into the chilly rainy street. Indeed I felt as I had just been a boy at my grandfather’s bath.