Istanbul: baths and Prince’s Islands

We wake up and make breakfast. I don’t know which I like more – the gregariousness and spontaneity of a night gathering, or the gentle immediacy of breakfast as a group the next morning. Both I suppose.

Dominic and I run out to pick some cheese and olives and fresh bread. We get this amazing dark loaf from his favourite neighbourhood bakery. 1 lira a loaf. Amazing deal. Food here is cheap, diverse, bountiful, and delicious.

It’s our last day in town before heading inland to the salt lake and there are things we want to do. We do stay for breakfast though, it is lovely and the necessary end to our stay.

We pack up and head out.

On our way back to our host’s place to pick up our bags, I remember the snack in my pocket I picked up at the spice market.

They call it ‘Turkish Viagra’ – a dried fig stuffed with nuts. The combination of figs and nuts is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. But ‘Viagra’, I suppose, is more attention-grabbing than ‘Turkish aphrodisiac’.

Either way it’s delicious and such a handy and convenient little object!

Our  night bus leaves around midnight from the bus depot at Kadiköy; our plan is to spend the afternoon and evening on the Prince’s Islands (Adalar), a group of isles off the city in the Sea of Marmara, with no cars and lots of beautiful homes.

But first, the baths.

Çemberlitaş Hamamı: a traditional Turkish bath designed by the famed architect Sinan, in continuous use since its construction in 1584.


We enter. Charlotte is led off to the woman’s section, and I up to the second level, a wooden balcony wrapping around the square room, three storeys up. A sliding door of wood and glass and a small chamber to change.

Down towards the baths. A man leads me through a painted archway and a curtain, into the old part of the structure. Natural light filters down from circular holes in the ceiling, peeling away at the plaster and shimmering on the floor. He gestures towards another doorway, the echoes of water and the rhythms of massage.

It is a wide circle, with twelve alcoves, each third enclosed by burnished stone partitions. The open ones have basins along the wall; those enclosed have one basin on each interior wall. There are metal washing bowls floating in full basins, stacked upside down on faucets or rims or placed on the floor. I find a basin and wash. The water is warm. Everything exists slowly.

In the centre of the room is a large platform. It is made of marble and heated from below. Two or three masseurs lather prone bodies with a natural sponge; hands work thighs and feet and shoulders like dough. I lower my back onto the stone and it melts.

The only light in the room enters through the holes in the domed ceiling above. They are arranged in a spiral pattern, like the scales on a pinecone. It is mesmerising. I contemplate that and nothing else and in that many things. Geometry.

I have no concept of time. Five minutes becomes fifty and back. I force myself to glance at the small clock hanging above the entrance. It is time. I could stay here for a day.

I meet Charlotte outside the baths and we make off for the ferry. There is enough time.

Tea culture and the baths: two things I will miss.

Those, and the great unintentional public art.

You can’t make that up.

Or this, for that matter.

We are both in a daze of bliss, whether everything is both at a soft distance and utterly proximal. The wind on wet hair. The feeling of fabric against the skin. The imperceptible rocking of the boat.

Even the snackies are amazing. Apricot paste studded with whole pistachios.

This was absolutely mesmerising to me.

The boat begins to reach the first of the Adalar. We wait for the second-last stop, Heybeliada.

It looms close.

The port.

We wander through a few streets in town.

Streetside citrus.

The light begins to fall; our carriage finds us.

Up and away, out of town.

There are viewpoints.

Our guide is the kindest man. He tells us about his family and children, and he insists we pet his horses, and sit in the driver’s seat.

We drive around the island. Back in town, we stumble into our dinner at a three-table joint with one table of hungry lads eating and plenty of good smells. We point at what they’re having. Our host is vocally pleased to oblige.

Menamen – eggs cooked in a thick sauce of tomatos, onions and peppers. It comes in a hot cast-iron dish, with a loaf of crusty bread to soak up all those bam juices. That is the thing we were meant to eat exactly then.

We finish and thank our cook. He seems to think we need more. The hungry lads are eating something new. He points and says ‘köfte’. We have köfte, though a vegetarian version made with ground pulses, walnuts, and vegetables instead of meat. They are supremely well spiced, and hearty.

They bring us a tray heaped with accompaniments: parsley, mint, green onion, lettuce, lemon, and wide vellums of lavash. Wrap that up.

Again, fresh herbs. revelation.

We eat much. There is tea.

I ask our cook what everything is called. I take notes. There are profuse thanks on all ends.

It is dark. There is an open bakery. A leisurely baklava while waiting for the ferry.

This entry was published on Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm. It’s filed under adventures, food, general, restaurants, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Istanbul: baths and Prince’s Islands

  1. The sensual pleasures you described, it was almost like being there, the horse’s earthy mane, the piquant taste of nuts …

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