WHAT I WISH I'D KNOWN BEFORE MY FIRST MOROCCAN HAMMAM
Sliding around stark naked on a slab of marble while a total stranger pours buckets of water over your head and scrubs at your skin with a sandpaper mitt isn’t the most dignified way to spend an evening, but I couldn’t bloody wait to do it.
I’m talking about a Moroccan hammam, of course, not my usual Friday night shenanigans. A hammam is basically a Turkish bath. I haven’t had a Turkish bath in Turkey (yet) but I think they’re pretty much the same, however in Morocco, the process more heavily focuses on the use of steam.
When we headed to Morocco on an impromptu week-long escape from the rain in Spain, I was super excited to try out a Hammam. Why? Because I have chronically dry skin that has recently been in the worse shape of its life due to months of flying, using fan heaters to keep the van warm, lack of regular showers (to give myself a good scrub), and it being too cold (or me being too tired) at the end of the day to moisturise. It seemed like a good idea to just slough the whole surface of my skin off and start again.
When I started looking up Hammams, there was no shortage of travel bloggers recounting their experience, and they all made it sound very dramatic and wild. One said it was like ‘being drowned’, others said it was ‘so intense’ they ‘could hardly breathe through the steam and the pain of the scrubbing’, and almost all of them said they were ‘scrubbed so hard’ that they thought their ‘skin was bleeding’ - and these were in the ‘luxury spa’ hammams, not local hammams (I’ve explained the difference below). Needless to say, I went in to my first Hammam expecting primitive brutality, but to be honest, was a little disappointed. I actually wanted my skin to be scrubbed to hell. For this reason, I then went to a less ‘spa’ type of Hammam, where I got closer to the the kind of brutality I was after (my skin was ridiculously smooth afterwards), but it still wasn’t nearly as dramatic as other bloggers wanted me to believe - maybe it was poetic license on their part (no one wants reality to interrupt a good story), or maybe my body is desensitised to exfoliation. Regardless, here are 7 questions I wish I’d had answered before having my first Hammam:
1. What’s the difference between a ‘Spa’ Hammam and a ‘Local’ Hammam?
A Hammam is a traditional bath house where Moroccan women have always gone to steam and scrub themselves clean. It is often a social event, and often times the women will spend liesurely hours together scrubbing each other, talking, and relaxing. These local Hammam’s aren’t closed to travellers, but in most, you will need to bring your own towel, a rubber mat to sit on, and black soap (or your scrub of choice).
A ‘Spa’ Hammam is a little more ‘western’ in that someone will definitely be there to give you the Hammam treatment, and they will supply towels (and mint tea afterwards).
2. Do I have to be naked?
Not really. Generally you have to have everything off the top half, but it’s not unusual for people to leave their underpants or swimmers on. Some places even provide a disposable g-string. The thing is, everything gets so wet and twisted from the sliding and scrubbing (glamorous huh) that it really is more comfortable to be starkers - and besides, these people doing the scrubbing see hundreds of bodies. You’re just a lump of skin, there’s nothing to be self conscious about.
3. Will I be on my own, or will other people be there too?
So this kind of ties in with the previous question - maybe it isn’t as scary to be naked in front of the hammam-magician, but in front of a few other ladies, you may think twice…
My first Hammam was private. No one else was there, and I had the steam room all to myself. There was no embarrassment to be had as I sat there in all my naked glory. I assumed that because my second Hammam was at a spa too, it too would be private. I arrogantly tossed aside the disposable underwear they offered (because I was like, so local), before announcing I was ready. They promptly led me into the treatment area, removed my fluffy white bathrobe, and let me strut into the steam room… where two other women were also laying about on the marble slabs...wearing their disposable undies.
I feel like this would have been far less awkward had we all been naked.
So in answer to this question, it really depends on where you go and how many people are booked in at the same time, but I’d mentally prepare for the possibility of steaming with a few other ladies. As women, though, I thing we need to embrace each other’s bodies (figuratively) without judgement or unkindness, so I still reckon starkers is the way to go. It also makes the bathing experience much more comfortable.
4. Is the steam intense?
Yes. Yes it is. I love it. Jamal would die. It really depends on whether you like a good steamy sauna or not. It’s not unbearable, in fact, I found it wonderful, but I can see how people would struggle a little if they had a heat sensitivity. Especially as the tiled walls and the marble slab you’re lying on is also heated. Basically you go into the ‘steam room’ and they drench you in warm water (drench, not drown - they do pour it over your head but its no more intense than having a shower) then let you steam for about 15 mins or so. It’s not too long, it’s relaxing, and it preps your skin for the scrubbing of its life.
5. What do they do?
Generally after the steam (during which you may or may not have had some black soap or oil applied to the skin) the therapist will come in and pour bucket after bucket over your body before commencing the scrub to end all scrubs. In my first Hammam, this was done in the same room, while for my second Hamman I was led into another little chamber and instructed to lie on a marble pedastal that reminded me of something you would lay a corpse on for a viewing. After the scrub, they will wash your hair and your body with glorious suds, then drench you once more in buckets of water. You will then be able to shower yourself off before donning a bathrobe and relaxing with a fresh mint tea.
6. Does it hurt?
NO. They basically use a super duper coarse version of the exfoliating mitts you get in the supermarket. Some people say it feels like coarse sandpaper, but it’s not that harsh, and it feels FABULOUS. The effect is akin to grating a hunk of parmesan cheese - no joke. If you’ve got a suitably brutal therapist, your skin comes off in a mountain of shavings. My mountain was probably a little larger than most (the therapist even commented ‘oh my goodness! You have sooo much dead skin!’ - that’s right, a HAMMAM therapist said this. And bear in mind this was two days after my FIRST, albeit less brutal, hammam - so I feel like my prior claim about the repulsive condition of my skin was completely valid) but I believe most people have this experience.
7. Does it work?
YES. Try it. It’s the ultimate body scrub, and a hell of a lot of slightly awkward fun.