What stereotypes pepper your thoughts when you hear of Morocco? Perhaps it’s the fall-off-the-bone lamb served in a brick-red, conical tagine? Perhaps it’s the endlessly flowing and sugar-laden fresh mint tea, poured hospitably in every establishment? Or perhaps it’s a traditional Hammam experience, a hot steam bath followed by a massage that leaves you feeling cleansed and uplifted?I must admit that until my honeymoon, I had never indulged in a spa experience abroad –even now, it’s an activity I could take or leave. When Pumpkin put together a rather unexpected birthday surprise trip to Marrakech (I still don’t fully understand why but who’s going to argue), he asked me whether I wanted to try out a Hammam. I couldn’t think of a more relaxing way to celebrate (yes, celebrate not commiserate) getting older than spending an afternoon in the calm estuary of a Moroccan Hammam. I was soon to learn that “relaxing” wasn’t to feature on the menu of the day.
Hammam Rosa Bonheur, Marrakech
We booked into the charming Hammam Rosa Bonheur after reading rave reviews and were very impressed by how promptly they replied to our email. It was a reasonably long walk from the area of the Medina that we were staying in and we were asked to meet at the front of the Palace Bahia. We were late as we got hopelessly lost so if you’re visiting this Hammam, either take a taxi or allow PLENTY of time to find it, as there’s a whole myriad of narrow, unnamed alleyways around there.
Despite our tardiness, we were met with a gracious member of staff who led us to the Hammam located inside a pretty Riad. After the brisk walk, I was starving so the crunchy, almond biscuits washed down with a pot of aforementioned mint tea offered to us (see – every establishment) were gulped down ravenously. An inviting warmth drifted over by osmosis from the cosy log fire in the corner of the room. It might be Marrakech but it’s still winter.We were then led to our dimly lit twin room with a few scented tea lights in the corner, two massage beds, towels, robes and a bathroom, not dissimilar to most spa rooms. In the more traditional Hammams, men and women are segregated but many of those appealing to tourists offer couples’ Hammam experiences like this one.
The true Moroccan HammAM Experience begins..
After lifting up our slippers and robes, we were handed a pair of disposable paper thongs, pink for the lady and blue for the gent. This was to be my first warning shot. ..
And then I was taken to another room where I was to enter a hot room, rather like a sauna. Two friendly ladies stood by me and helped me to de-robe; as they did, I instantly grabbed the towel hanging in front of me to cover myself up. They stared at me with a look of combined confusion and amusement – apparently, the only one bothered by me being naked was me.
And unfortunately, the towel was for later.
Instead, I was to take my robe off and walk straight into the hot room wearing nothing except the disposable underwear. I cringed more than I’ve ever cringed about anything in my entire life, my face suffused and cherry-red with embarrassment but the dark and steamy enclaves of the sauna shielded me from public ridicule. Inside I was to find Pumpkin, who had already been placed on his bench. I couldn’t bare to face him – or anyone. My mind kept regurgitating, “someone cover me up. Please. Pretty please. Please cover me up” But my prayers weren’t being answered. Because that’s not what happens at a Hammam. Get over your embarrassment because the staff are well and truly over it – they’re excellent at what they do and they just want you to enjoy the Hammam Experience.
So I tried. And I failed, my hands unable to separate themselves from the V-shaped clasp they had instantaneously formed to cover my modesty. Yes the underwear was on but believe me, it leaves little to the imagination. As far as I was concerned, this was almost as uncomfortable as being stark naked.
Bit by bit, we were washed down by two therapists, throwing small buckets of wonderfully warm water over us, skilfully managing to avoid splashing our eyes. Then came the black soap scrubs, which were so exfoliating that I can only imagine how much skin must have been flaking off in a snowball-cascade effect – I daren’t look. Candidly, a bit of dry skin was the least of my anxieties. They left us in the room to soak for a while. The heat on the stone bench was singeing my backside and I awkwardly writhed around the bench, like a first time mother in labour.Pumpkin seemed unfazed. How is this boy ALWAYS unfazed? “Do you not feel embarrassed,” I asked, frustrated that he was able to get these niggles out of his mind so much more easily than I could. Of course he was embarrassed, he informed me. “But that’s just how it is so we might as well roll with it and enjoy it.”
Oh right. “Roll with it”. Yes of course, that’s all I needed to do. Why didn’t I think of that earlier?
Eventually, after several rounds of water shoveling and soapy rubs with rough mittens, we were ready to leave this particular room, which I had Christened the chamber of embarrassment. Yes, they do scrub hard but contrary to the myths, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. And with the exception of your nether regions, be prepared to be scrubbed all over.
At that point, we were led back up to our massage rooms where things resumed an air of familiarity. The moistening Argan oil soaked into my new-found soft, skin and the therapists worked their magic on my (by now) extremely tense muscles. The massage was one of the best I’ve had – I’m a bit of a wimp and always opt for gentle. The Argan oil felt so luxurious that I bought myself a bottle from a shop in the Medina later in the trip. Do you all successfully manage to switch off during massages? I always try to but find myself daydreaming about errands to run, work, future holidays, travel wishlists, what I feel like eating for dinner, what’s happening in Neighbours whilst I’m on holiday and all other manner of distracted, fleeting and wholly unproductive thoughts.
Until that moment when I finally fall asleep, which has happened to me more than once during massages.They let us take all the time we needed to get showered, washed and ready after the massage and our Hammam experience ended with another serving of tea and biscuits by the fire. Despite a bit of a language barrier, the staff were beyond friendly and so patient with my overtly-shy and awkward behaviour, whilst still coaxing me into experiencing the Hammam the way it should be lived.
I know for certain that given how self-conscious I felt, I personally wouldn’t be suited to the Hammams used by locals, where you often sit equally naked in a room full of other women but if you can get past this aspect of it, you can be certain to leave with glowing skin and floaty muscles and whatever you end up making of it, it really is an experience worth experimenting with in Morocco.
Have you ever visited a Moroccan Hammam? What was your experience?