What do Florence Nightingale, Franz Liszt Rudolf Nureyev, Steve Irwin, Tony Curtis, Kate Moss, Cameron Diaz and East 17 have in common?
Well, they all scrub up well, apart from Florence, Franz and East 17 that is.
And so they should, as they have all had the special Cagaloglu Hamam treatment in Istanbul where the masseurs, or masseurochists, as I prefer to call them, have been oiling, foaming, dousing and contorting the bodies of the great and the unwashed since 1741.
And now me, tired and sore after trudging miles through Istanbul’s Old City and its Grand Bazaar, looking for rugs, trinkets and magic Eastern lanterns for Herself…. I settle for pistachio and mixed fruit Turkish delight, and know that won’t be right either.
It’s a tourist hotspot, yes, but the locals come here too, and if you’re lucky enough to have a guide show you around, as we did, then you’ll discover some specialist shops – though I’d avoid the dress-up steal. Pasty-white Irishmen and women rarely look the part in Turkish robes.
Our host, Onur, who hails from the country’s capital, Ankara, in Asian Anatolia, swears by the Bazaar and stops by every time he’s in town to get his jewellery cleaned. And while he is catching up with old pals, we are making new ones as we thumb through books in the Sahaflar square off the Bazaar.
We take care not to disturb the cats though, sprawled out over ancient tomes and modern blockbusters, drowsy from the midday sun. George RR Martin’s Taht Oyunlari, 15 Turkish lira, or €2, anyone.
And you can barter too, though I leave that pleasure to our guide, Hakan to get the best price. No Marrakech-style pestering here.
The Cagaloglu Hamam – recommended by 1,000 Places To See Before You Die (and at one point as Bir bore down on me with karate chops to my back, I thought I might) – and its marble plinth and columns, hexagonal windows and steamy hedonism is the perfect place to retreat to for a sauna and a scrub down.
Particularly after the hustle and bustle of Istanbul and jostling with any one of 150 nationalities who make up the 20 million population of Europe’s biggest city.
Technically, it’s got just the one big toe in Europe where there are ONLY five million, the other 15 million live on the Asian side of the Bosphorus stalls.
There was no such distinction when the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines or Ottomans ruled here over the 1,500 years up to 1923 when the then-Constantinople became Turkish Istanbul.
For a bite-sized history lesson, visit the ‘big three’ sites: the Emperor Justinian’s crowning glory, the Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia: the Topkapi Palace, with its treasury, harem and circumcision, a snip at 30 and 35TL, €4/€5; and the Sultanahmet Camli, or Blue Mosque (free), on account of the colour of the tiles, whose scale might just bring you to your knees in thanksgiving – it did me.
Learn too of randy royals and gardeners, and plotting eunuchs. Who needs Game of Thrones?
Istanbul is an epic production, 5,461 square kilometres of mosques, bazaars, high-street fashion, whirling dervishes and nightclubs,. industry, innovation, modern and classical architecture, a seat of learning for 80 universities and a pioneering centre of medicine, dentistry and cosmetic surgery – the ubiquitous bald-headed men with bandages across the back of their bonces will blindside you, but they’ve come her to recapture their luscious locks.
It’s the modern way, now that wearing a turban has gone out of fashion.
John Travolta, who’s picture we clocked on the wall of fame in the hamam, may even have come here for that very reason!
Everything about Istanbul then is expansive, but not necessarily expensive, at least if you steer away from the estates on the banks of the Bosphorus which we do on on an memorable mid-evening cruise.
In a nod to Eurovision in the week that’s in it, we work off our Banquet on the Bosphorus of meze, pitta bread, rice, sea bas, baklava and Black Sea wine with a boogie on board.
The Sultanahmet Koftecisi, close to the Hagia Sophia, is an Istanbul institution and claims the best kofte (meatballs) in the city for approximately €7 – though its Ayran, a water, yoghurt and salt drink, which is Turkey’s national drink, is probably an acquired taste.
Accommodation is affordable too. We stayed at the ultra-modern Crowne Plaza for €75 a night €B&B. It is a half-hour’s drive from the Old City, with views of the Bosphorus, and a buffet breakfast that will challenge even the most ravenous with its range of hot and cold cuts of Asian meats (everything really, apart, surprisingly for turkey) and figs, apricots, prunes, dates and yoghurt.
You can eat like a king or queen anywhere in Istanbul, ant they certainly won’t send you home with an empty stomach.
And don’t be worried about the portions at the airport when it’s time go home. The newly-opened grandiose Istanbul Airport, the largest in the world with a capacity for 200 million passengers and where you can fly twice daily from Dublin with Turkish Airlines is a shopper’s and foodie’s dream.
Turkish Airlines also puts on the best spread I’ve seen in any airport in the world in their award-winning business lounge, with the best entertainment too – a cinema, golf simulator and model motor-racing track – an showers and beds.
And that’s just an appetiser before you get into the air where the champagne, Efes Turkish beer, Marmara wine, maze, manticores (Turkish ravioli) and softie just keep coming – all prepped by a flying chef with a floppy white hat!
Just as well that they’ve luxurious recalling seats so you can doze off during the movie.
Now, am I dreaming of in a love story, where Kate Moss is rubbing my back and serving me Turkish tea?
HOW TO GET THERE
Return economy class from Dublin to Istanbul with European Airline of the Year Turkish Airlines costs from €325 (including taxes). Return business class (from €1,035 including taxes). includes the services of flying chefs, 337-plus movies, 414 TV seres, 756 albums and 17 games, cartoons and movies, as well as WI-FI and live TV.
Turkish Airlines flies 14 times a week from Dublin. Duration 3 hrs 50 minutes. See www.turkishairlines.com or call (01) 5251849.
The all-new Istanbul Airport is enormous and has a future capacity for around 200 million passengers. The business lounge is incredible too, with games and great food www.igairport.com.
WHERE TO STAY
The five-star Crowne Plaza Florya Istanbul costs from €75 B&B per night. See cpistanbulflorya.com.
WHAT TO DO
Aya Sofya: 30TL/€4. See www.ayasofyamuzesii.gov.tr.
Sultanahmet Camii/Blue Mosque: See www.sultanahmetcamii.org.
Cagaloglu Hamam this offers a self-service option (€30) up to the €180 Sultan Mahmud the Fist Service, a 45-minute all-body treatment which includes a collagen face mask. See www.cagalogluhami.com.tr.
TTG Travel/Tiurkey Travel Group for tours of the city with a maximum capacity 30 people. For more information see www.turkeytravelgroup.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Sultanahmet Koftecisi for kofti meatballs (on Alameda Mahalle, Divanyolu Caddesi 12A).
Hak Evrenseli Hatay Sofrasi for chicken pomegranate molasses, bulgur-wheat, tomato and cucumber (on enlikkoy May. Yesilkoy Halkali Cad, near the Aqua AVM, Floyra Bakirkoy).