Tuesday, 26 April 2016


30th - 31st Mar 2016

Hamam entrance. 

After showing much lack of enthusiasm I was persuaded to visit a Hamam (Turkish Bath). The origin of the Turkish Bath was as a communal wash-house in the days when people didn't have suitable 'facilities' at home. Similar to most countries in the olden days I suppose, except that the Turkish Bath has gained a reputation and has plenty of imitations world-wide. I was told that the standard of these institutions varies from the very seedy to quite luxurious. I was taking as little risk as possible and went to one near the affluent Istiklal Cad (the Oxford Street of Istanbul).

It was not cheap at 180 Lira (about £45) a go for a hour's session, and there was a more expensive and longer 'de-luxe' service. I stuck with the one hour job. Quite a smart marble entrance foyer with armchairs and exotic decoration, and a desk with a charming smiling moustachioed attendant plus credit card machine. I was handed a sarong sort of thing and taken upstairs to a private changing room where I changed into my sarong. Back downstairs I was told to put on some wooden clogs and then escorted into a spacious domed marble (everything is marble here unless otherwise specified) chamber with a large central raised platform. It was hot, very hot, in there. At first sight it reminded me of a (hot) morgue with supine figures covered in their sarongs, both male and female, around the outside and a few more draped on the central platform. I was told to lie down on the (marble) floor which I did, and waited, sweating. After 15 mins I was approached by a large hairy pot-bellied gentleman who might have been a retired Turkish wrestler and taken to lie on the central platform. It was like being put on a griddle. Yes, painful. Just as I was beginning to go from 'rare' to 'medium' the Turkish wrestler came up with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. He proceeded to baste me, soapily, all over which at least slowed the cooking process. I was then, accompanied by much soaping, given a massage. Well, when I say massage it was more like a serious kneading and pummelling and my neck, arm and leg muscles were quite painfully tenderised. I remembered, having seen it on telly many years ago, what you do in a wrestling match when you submit; you bang your hand down three times on the canvas and the ref stops the fight. I tried. It didn't work. There was no ref. I can't recall how long this torture lasted, but I was then led, hobbling, to a (marble) bench where said ex-wrestler poured buckets of warm water over me before donning what looked like an oven glove. The palm of this had a kind of sand-paper covering. With more soap he proceeded to scrub me all over. I believe the human body has three layers of skin. After this I only had two left. More slooshes of warm water over my now well scoured and very tender body and I was led out to another room with showers. It was a freezing cold shower and by God Almighty it came as a shock to the system. I was then wrapped up in a thick towel and taken back out, somewhat dazed, to the reception room and given a glass of hot sweet tea to recover along with other survivors. Well, that was about it and I suspect that whatever was left of me had never ever been cleaner. I'm only glad I didn't go for the 'de-luxe' treatment.

After this I decided to take a recuperatory walk on up Istiklal Cad to Taksim Square (left) at the northern end. I'm told that there are occasional demos here which quickly turn into riots involving well practiced and none too gentle police who cause stampeding rioters to swarm into the side-streets and it can all become rather alarming for any passing tourist. It didn't happen while I was there and so I don't have anything very exciting to write about.

Right: A statue of some military significance in Taksim Square.

There is a marvellous old tram system which chugs, slowly, up and down Istiklal Cad. It is a 'hop-on hop-off' and free service. It doesn't even have to stop for people to hop; no elf 'n safety nonsense here. I hopped a couple of times.

Right: Inside the old tram.

I was well entertained in Istanbul and visited several excellent and amusing restaurants. One especially notable one is a Georgian restaurant near the Galata Tower run by a charming Turk who, I think, had spent much time in UK. His wife is a Georgian who played old Russian/Georgian music on her piano and to which we were all encouraged to dance. The food was good also. It is that sort of place.

Having bought a few souvenirs including several boxes of Turkish Delight, that about concluded my short visit. I must say, I rather recommend Istanbul (and going there by train). It is a fun place for a city break.

The next day it was a fast journey by taxi to Ataturk airport, and I mean fast. My driver obviously fancied himself as a F1 pilot. I flew home, a 4 hour flight. Incidentally, having arrived at the airport with time to kill, I pulled off another coup by (again) inveigling my way into the VIP lounge. I'm getting quite practiced at this having worked on my 'technique' on many occasions, with several failures it must be admitted. It's always worth trying because once you're 'in' they are not going to chuck you out, and the freebie wine and food on offer is well worth the effort. 

Much of this journey was arranged for me by an excellent travel company based in London called 'Railbookers' and in particular a very helpful employee there, Gareth Jones, who had done this rail journey himself so knew the ropes. In hindsight it would have been relatively simple for me to have just bought the tickets as I went, point to point, but not being familiar with the eastern European rail system (thinking, mistakenly, that it would be as crowded, chaotic and unreliable as the British one), using Railbookers made it less of a hassle. I strongly recommend them.