April 09, 2011

On The Road: Getting steamy in Istanbul's spa of the sultans

Stepping into one of Istanbul's hammams is like parting steamy curtains on to ancient Asia Minor. Visitors bake on marble slabs, sweating out life's impurities; attendants massage, pummel and buff; bathers emerge baby soft and squeaky clean.

Yet as the city modernises, its historic hammams are slowly morphing into a tourist-only attraction, charging the equivalent of £30 a session. This year, I asked around to find out where the locals go to soap up, soak and sweat it all out. The top tip? Head out of the city across the Sea of Marmara to Termal (yalovatermal.com), the ancient thermal springs just outside of Yalova.

I grabbed my husband and my swimming costume and we were off. An hour-long boat ride from Istanbul's Yenikapi Ferry Terminal followed by a 20-minute bus ride and we were in the leafy resort of Termal Kaplicalar, the creatively named "Thermal Thermals (Spa)".

Built by Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Termal was beloved of Byzantine rulers. Ottoman sultans expanded the complex during the 19th century, constructing most of the ornate bathhouses still in use today. In 1911, an international jury awarded Termal first prize as "the world's most healing hot waters". Even Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, spent summers here: his holiday home, Ataturk Kosku, is currently under transformation into a state museum.


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