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Oriental Hammam, Royal Mirage Hotel

Pampered, Not Pummelled

Back in 1845, a British tourist called FW Simms described his visit to a Cairo hammam. “He tried to break my back and dislocate my limbs...” he wrote of the traditional masseur. “I was about to plead for quarter when, alas! My mouth and eyes were filled with soap...”

I sympathise. Last year I treated myself to an evening in the hammam next to the Paris mosque and had one of the year’s more stressful experiences: I was shouted at by all the women in charge, shoved from pillar to post, got into trouble for being naked (what else do you do in an all-female hammam? Well, keep your knickers on when in Paris, it turns out) and eventually threw in the towel — literally — and demanded my money back. “It’s Ramadan and the ladies are tired,” explained one of the French regulars, sweetly. “The men should not have sold you a ticket.”

The thing is that I am a public bathing nut. I love it. I have had wonderful experiences in Turkish hammams and Japanese onsen and Russian banyas, but there is no question that you have to be feeling quite robust, especially on your own. You have to be ready to make a complete prat of yourself and many people — particularly we modest British — find that hard. So why do it?

These days you can find the real thing transmuted into a gentler, more private, altogether classier experience. Luxury spas retain the sensuous, charming bits while massaging away the pain, humiliation and stress. There is no language barrier: you can ask them to stop, or hurt you more. Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s exotic. Yes, it’s foreign — just not quite as much. So let’s all relax and fake it.

The real thing

I've had a lot of hammams, or steam baths, and I find them fantastically relaxing, with the exception of those in less-travelled areas, such as Yemen or Iran — oh yes, and Paris — where you are more likely to be the subject of general mirth. There is nothing so invigorating, though, as the sort of merciless loofah scrub-down you get in a hammam, and in Marmaris I was once massaged with a wonderful pink pillow case filled with soap bubbles, a variation I’ve never seen since.

Çemberlitas, 8 Vezirhan Caddesi, Sultanahmet, Istanbul ( is great for first-timers and the staff are used to tourists. A massage costs from 28 YTL (£12); a body scrub, traditional Turkish soap massage and massage with oil costs 68YTL (£30).

The luxe version

Royal Mirage Dubai’s huge Oriental Hammam was designed as a modern take on the traditional bath complex, with keyhole windows, stained glass and elegant marble massage slabs. Traditional masseurs from Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco follow the time-honoured routines — steam to open the pores, deep cleansing with black soap, a vigorous exfoliation that leaves you glowing and massage varying from gentle to murderous. There is a wide choice of treatments and you do have some say in what is happening.