A Hammam is a steam room, similar to a Turkish bath, where Moroccans habitually go each week to cleanse themselves.
The Public Hammam – as experienced by a female member of staff…
The Hammam is an incredibly important part of Moroccan culture and life. Men, women and children will visit their local Hammam at least once a week, and spend two or three hours there (sometimes even longer!!), catching up on gossip with their friends, and following the long rituals for cleansing their bodies until their skin glows.
The public Hammam experience is a real eye opener for the more reserved Westerner such as myself. Although many Moroccans are becoming much more westernised, the roots of their culture are still very evident everywhere you go, with many women covering their bodies, sometimes still from top to toe, when out in public. Not so in the Hammam! Men and women bathe separately of course, but the women are far from shy with each other when it comes to the public Hammam. They will usually go with their friends or family, both to chat and socialise, but also to help each other with the ritual.
On entering the public Hammam, the first room is much like the changing rooms in a public swimming baths (minus any private cubicles!), with wooden benches around the perimeter of the room, and hooks for you to hang your clothes whilst stripping. There are ladies on duty as you enter where you can hire buckets (the Moroccans take their own) and leave your belongings once you have stripped off, and you can buy black soap and exfoliation gloves at the entrance when you pay to get in. You can also hire a lady to scrub you if do not have someone with you (or if you are too shy to let your friend do it for you…).
Moving on from the changing rooms, we passed through two huge tiled rooms with domed ceilings filled with steam and naked ladies, the latter reclining all over the floors in such a manner that it was necessary to step over them to move on to the next room. In the third and final room we found some floor space, and lay down our mats and cleaning utensils to mark our spot.
Lining the walls were taps with piping hot water from which we filled our buckets before retreating back to our mats. Sat in the corner, trying hard and failing miserably to look inconspicuous in my bikini bottoms (I was the only person in the whole Hammam with a shred on!), I copied my Moroccan friend, and started to dip my plastic bowl into my bucket of water and slosh it all over myself. We then covered ourselves in black soap, and let it penetrate our pores for what seemed like a long, long time.
Once we had filled our buckets several more times and washed off all of the black soap, our Hammam ladies arrived to do the hard part of exfoliating our skin. I was instructed to lie flat on my back, and my lady prepared to start with my arms. I closed my eyes, trying to pretend there was no one else in the room, and determined to enjoy being washed and pampered, only to have them fly open again in shock when the scrubbing began. This tiny little dot of a girl had the strength of an ox, and it felt as though she was rubbing me down with sandpaper! After a long few minutes I got used to the pressure and pain, and actually started enjoying it. I was a little mortified at how much dead skin she was stripping from me as she scrubbed every single inch of my flesh till it was red raw, but she did not seem surprised or bothered so I stopped my worrying.
Once my front was done from top to toe, she repeated the process for my back and sides – not one millimetre of skin escaped being scrubbed. I was certainly glowing when I was done, and tingling from head to foot for several hours afterwards!
The Hotel Hammam
A Hammam in a hotel is a completely different story, although the knowing smile that’s says ‘You’re English!!’ remains the same when you go in wearing a bikini or underwear. And you will invariably have your large ‘Bridget Jones’ pants pulled into a string Thong at some stage during the ritual, so smaller pants are definitely more comfortable if you cant bare to go bare… Some hotels provide you with paper pants that often don’t last the distance, so that will be anther story not to tell the Grand kids!
Don’t be surprised if the person giving you your Hammam is practically naked; they do usually keep their pants on to make you feel more comfortable. Most of the hotel Hammams will take at least two of you at once, but are happy to take you singularly if you do not want to share with your Mum/friend/Sister.
Hammam rituals can vary from hotel to hotel, and some offer several different rituals for varying lengths of time. A full ritual in a larger Hammam may involve you first sitting in a large pool of fairly hot, incredibly soft water for 5 – 10 minutes before covering you with mud or clay. Once the clay comes off the black soap goes on and is left to penetrate your skin. That then gets washed off, and the fun really begins with the super vigorous exfoliation. A cold shower often follows to re-close the pores, and you would then receive a full body massage in a warm, comfortable darkened room – absolute bliss!
In a smaller hotel the Hammam would not have a pool of water, but instead you would sit on a wooden stool, or lie on a bench or on the floor and have hot water poured over you from a bucket.
The Hotel Spa
Most hotels that feature a Hammam will also offer Spa treatments – at the very least a massage after your Hammam. Prices are very similar to European prices in most places, but then the treatments are generally easily up to European standards.
Some hotels that do not have a Hammam and spa can very often make arrangements for you to go to one nearby in another hotel or Riad (if you don’t fancy the Public Hammam experience!), and some will arrange for a Masseur to come to the hotel and give you treatments in your room.