x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A harsh dose of relaxation at a Turkish bath

It can be intimidating, but the level of relaxation achieved makes the Turkish-bath experience worth it.

On holiday in Istanbul recently, I went to a Turkish bath that came with local recommendations. It was located in the city's old quarter, in the historical precinct of Sultanahmet.

The venue didn't need to advertise an authentic experience, its fading paint job and missing lettering on top of the wooden gates did that instead.

The manager was a burly man with a proud moustache. "Half programme or full?" he grunted as he showed me a series of photos illustrating the contents of the full service.

In sequential order, the photos showed the smiling manager massaging the client with soap, then using a water bucket to rinse the body. The next step was a benign looking scrub, followed by the client drying off by lying on a marble slab before a massage administered by a smiling masseuse. I payed the 70 Turkish Lira (Dh163) for the full programme.

Things started going awry, however, as soon as I entered the changing room. The lock looked like it had been violently yanked out, leaving me to change with the door permanently ajar.

Sitting alone in the circular bathing hall a few minutes later (I was there apparently in the non-peak time of 2pm on a weekday) I admired my spartan surroundings. Numerous taps were dotted along the wall across the hall, emanating an eerie symphony of drips. The cracked dome above was badly in need of repair.

But my reverie was shattered when my bather emerged.

It was not the manager.

To say the man who emerged instead was blessed with body hair would be an understatement, and his customer service was equally lacking in subtlety.

"Come here!" he barked, and pointed to the stool next to one of the taps. The next half an hour was a whirlwind of exhilaration and terror. His octopus hands went to work and his relentless use of the water bucket made me feel as if I were drowning under a waterfall. The glove-shaped scrubber my skin was scraped with felt like a sandal caked with wet gravel.

When he was finished, I was gingerly led to the masseuse in the neighbouring room.

As I lay on the massage table, he seemed to take each tense muscle as a personal insult, using his jabbing thumbs and elbow joints to crush these bodily insurrections.

Then, after what seemed like a lifetime of agony, he told me to sit up and look upwards. In a surprising moment of gentleness, he took my face in both hands... and then cracked my neck in two swift jerks.

Reflecting in a nearby café an hour later, I could not decide what horrified me the most: the brutalising experience itself, or the fact that I never felt so dizzyingly relaxed and limber in my life.