Turkish delight: Finding a bathhouse lost in time
YOU never forget your first time. Mine was so good I wish I hadn't experienced it so I could do it for the first time all over again.
My first time in a Turkish bathhouse was unforgettable, and not just because I had stumbled across possibly the oldest bathhouse in Turkey by accident.
Gedikpasa Bathhouse in Istanbul was built in 1475, and there I was just passing it on my way to the Grand Bazaar when the sign above the door announcing its remarkable age halted me.
Built in 1475? I had to go in, even though I knew not what to expect. No one in this historic and preserved place spoke English, which I liked very much. Instructions to shuck off every piece of clothing were conducted by mime.
A piece of checked cloth was handed to me as a wrap before I was escorted into a cavernous, domed, steamy, hot space by a large woman with wild hair and just a couple of teeth.
Peering into its misty depths, I could see a number of naked women lying on a circular marble slab, called a gobekta I found out later, the place where the bath ministrations take place.
I had no idea what to do, especially as my toothless woman wandered off and left me alone to speculate.
I sat on the dome hugging my bit of cloth to my nakedness and kept my eyes averted from the many unfettered boobies around me. I was obviously supposed to sit awhile and adjust to the heat and steam.
Some time later my woman returned, completely naked.
Her enormous swaying breasts announced her arrival minutes before the rest of her came into view. Mortified, I wished I'd done bathhouse research so I had known to expect this.
When she was fully in front of me, I could see she wasn't exactly naked. A teeny pair of black undies were all but hidden by the overhanging balcony of her belly.
Confronting? For a bathhouse virgin, terrifying.
She whipped my cloth off and started throwing buckets of warm water at me. It began to feel good as the water sloshed over, around, underneath me.
Then came the buffing bit - rather a sandpapering, as she rubbed a rough mitten all over my body, stopping to show me how much dead skin was sloughing away. By then I was happy to let her do whatever she wanted, all self-consciousness gone with each tossed bucket of warm water.
Then she produced a big balloon-like cloth filled with warm soapy bubbles that she squeezed and poured until I had completely disappeared beneath a hill of frothy warm bubbles.
I felt as though the world had suddenly slowed to a stop, and I was in my own private Eden. Then she bent her head close to mine and grunted: "Good?"
Her only word of English, but nowhere near adequate. It was better than good - more than wonderful.
If only I hadn't experienced this, I could have a first again.
Bathing in public bathhouses dates back to Roman times, and socialising and conducting business was all part of the enjoyment of a bathhouse visit.
In Turkish culture the bathhouse (hamam) dates back to the Ottoman Empire, where ritual cleansing was as important as socialising.
The hamams were striking illustrations of architecture where no expense was spared in the grand construction and decoration.
Originally it was just men who used the hamams.
In today's world, the hamams are used by men and women, although many separate the bathing areas, such as the Gedijpasa Bathhouse in Istanbul built by architect Gedik Ahmet Pasa in 1475.