This summer my hubs and I spent 4 days in Marrakech, Morocco and I got to check “get a Moroccan Hammam” off my bucket list. I know, I know, it was tough but someone had to do it!
By: Lisa Fennessy
The word hammam means “the spreader of warmth” in Arabic. This is telling because essentially a hammam is getting scrubbed down/cleansed in a very warm room. A hammam is predicated on the idea of having places of extreme cleanliness – where purifying the body goes hand-in-hand with purifying the soul. And around 600 AD, hammams also became places where major life events were celebrated and bathing rituals incorporated into weddings and births.
You can find hammams of all different shapes, sizes and price-points in Marrakech. In fact if you stay at a riad (a cross between a boutique hotel and a bed and breakfast – we stayed at this one), you may even be able to get one there. The hammam is one of five obligatory institutions found in every Moroccan neighborhood along with the communal bakery, a fountain, a school and the mosque.
There are two different kinds of hammams; public and private. A public hammam is traditionally single-sex with men and women having separate bathhouses or bathing times.
It’s also a more traditional, community based, gathering spot where and friends, family and children come once a week to get clean and catch up on the latest. If you opt for a public hammam you will most likely get a kit that includes a mat to lie on, some black soap and an exfoliating glove when you enter. Then you can proceed and either clean yourself or hire someone to exfoliate you. As a first-timer, I’m like; Where do I go? What do I do? Do I lie down? Sit? How long does the soap stay on? Are there rules to being naked? What about eye contact!? So basically what I’m trying to say is I totally chickened out and chose the hand-held experience of a private hammam.
A private hammam is more like a treatment at a spa. You check in at the front desk, lock your belongings in a locker, robes are doled out, you can opt for a private room, spa music plays, mint tea is flowing and it’s designed to be peaceful and relaxing.
The hammam experience happens between three basic rooms. A warmer waiting room with a plunge pool. The warm stone treatment room. And the cool relaxation room. Visitors move through these rooms where temperature changes stimulate blood flow and encourage the body to sweat out impurities. The basic layout of my experience looked something like this:
- Check in and get escorted to the locker room
- Change and lock belongings with provided locker and lock (curse because you didn’t bringing your own bathing suit bottoms – see below)
- Get escorted to the co-ed quiet waiting room with plunge pool
- Get called into the warm stone wet room (this is a private room or you can opt for a shared room with your friend/partner)
- 45 mins of rest, sweat/detox, scrubbing + body masks
- Soak in waiting room plunge pool for 5-10 minutes to get any remaining product off
- Robe up
- Get escorted back to a cool relaxation room to chill and wait for massage
- 45 min massage (private or you can opt for a shared room with your friend/partner)
- Back to relaxation room for biscuits and mint tea
- Leave when ready
If you decide to go, here are a couple things I wish I knew before diving in.
1. You Are Going To Get Naked – BYOB Sister
If you get a full hammam experience it happens in two parts; a scrub and a massage. You can also order these separate but if you are doing it, just go for the traditional experience and get both! The first part is the warm wet room scrub/mask/relax/detox (45 mins) and the second part is the massage (45 mins). You are naked for both. The rest of the time you are in a plush robe.
Apparently you can bring your own bathing suit bottoms and wear that for the scrub (file under: Things that would have been nice to know yesterday!) But if you show up empty handed, they will give you a little pair of undies that look like this. Nothing for your chest. Men get disposable paper/cloth shorts.
2. Expect A FULL BODY Scrub Down
I’m talking boobs, butts, belly buttons – everything! I also feel the need to note this is the first and maybe last time I actually pay to have someone rub down my boobs. I mean, I knew I signed up for a full body scrub but I was surprised at ALL the parts they really hit. And HARD! This was an aggressive scrubbing. Armpits, neck…even your face! (But to be fair, they did ask permission to scrub my face and they used a very light pressure). They even shampoo and condition your hair!
For the scrubber they use a glove or exfoliating mitt called a kessa. It’s kind of like a mesh mitt and some of them are made of goat hair. I really liked that they let you take it home with you too. (No reusing!)
The only bits that didn’t get scrubbed down were my V and my toes. Which I was kinda disappointed about the toes. They scrubbed my heals with a pumice block but it was a no-go on and around the toes.
If you want to try this at home, Kahina Giving Beauty offers a Moroccan black Beldi Soap and a traditional kessa (scrubbing mitt). I’ve used both of these and they are fantastic! (I especially like their eucalyptus Beldi Soap).
3. Drink A Crap Ton Of Water Before You Go
Above anything else, make sure you arrive hydrated. The first part of the treatment happens in a tiled wet room that’s heated. The walls are heated, the floor is heated and the air is hot. It got to the point a few times where it was hard to breath. And we stayed there. FOR 45 MINUTES!
You know those signs outside the steam rooms that say “Don’t exceed 10 minutes”? Morocco didn’t get the memo. They did give us a small bottle of water after the initial hot room treatment when we were chillin’ in the plunge pool. I could have drank 75 of them.
After the treatment we felt hot, parched, pruned and SMOOTH. (Okay so full disclosure; so prior to this we had walked around all day and shared a bottle of champs at lunch too which also didn’t help dehydration levels but either way, NOTED.)
4. You Will Probably Lose A Pound Of Skin
So for the scrubbing portion of the treatment they applied two masks. The first one was Moroccan Black Soap and the second was a clay-based mask. Each one sat on for abut 15 minutes and then removed.
Moroccan Black Soap is made from saponified olive oil and acts like a body mask, prepping and softening skin for exfoliation. It’s also naturally rich in vitamin E. It goes on super thin and looks like it is barely there.
After it sits on your skin for 15 mins the women come back in with a kessa scrubbing mitts and basically take off your top layer of skin. And you know it because when you look down at your legs and arms, you can see the exfoliated skin which looks like twisted black rolling papers adorning your limbs and trunk.
AND my skin? Babies bottom status. Seriously like nothing I’ve ever felt before. And that’s not it! After you are freshly exfoliated they then apply a clay mask to your entire body and let it sit for 15 mins before rinsing. The clay mask looks like this:
I could totally do this once a week.
5. The Best Shavasana
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You know that moment at the end of your massage when you are in that place that’s between sleeping and awake? When muscles are like jelly and all your problems have melted away? And then the massage therapist leans in and says, Okay! I’ll meet you out front when your ready. Take your time. I’m like, I wish you really meant that because I would love to surrender to this nap that is screaming my name right now. But alas, what you say instead is, Thanks and get up and leave.
Well….this time was different friends. The massage ended and instead of Meet you out front it was Stay here and relax for a bit. WHAT!? BE STILL MY BEATING HEART! They let us stay on the tables for like 15 minutes while me and my husband fell in and out of the best sleep/shavasana ever.
Odds and Ends
A few other things worth noting…
The entire treatment which lasted over 2 hours total was only $60 USD all-in. We went with Le Bein Bleu inside the medina – a favorite among the locals. You can go more upscale and pay upwards of $100 USD which is still a bargain compared to US spas. Or you can go to a public hammam and DIY for between $10-$30 USD.
The plunge pool was a bit gross because you could see the bits of product floating around in the water which was either from your own body or people’s prior.
They give you disposable cloth/paper johnnies to wear in the co-ed plunge pool so you are covered up. Like a tube, crop top and short shorts.
At the end of it all, you are refreshed with mint tea (the countries most beloved beverage) and biscuits in the relaxation room. At most places you can opt for your mint tea to be sweetened or not. I happened to love it both ways but I’m partial to sweetened. They also pour it really loud with the pot super high in the air to crate the expected frothy head.
Most of the women preforming the scrub only spoke French so it was hard to decipher their directions sometimes. Like, how can “face up” and “face down” sound the exact same!?
The massage I got was more of a light, relaxing Sweedish massage while my husbands left him sore. No one asked us what kind of massage we wanted so I guess it’s just a wait-and-see type of situation.
Warming Both Inside and Out
One thing that I totally didn’t expect were the feelings that surfaced as I was being washed. It struck me while I sat naked in front of this woman who was washing my hair – a child-like sense of weightlessness washed over me. A fleeting feeling that went as fast as it came but it was so powerful, it almost made me cry.
Maybe I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. Maybe it was a peek into my childhood. Maybe I was just delirious form dehydration but all I know is the weight of the world melted just for a second as I let someone take care of me. It was such a tiny moment but it left a huge impact – one that’s still reverberating. Little did I expect that getting a hammam would “spread warmth” both inside and out.
Have you experienced a traditional Moroccan hammam? What are your thoughts and what would you tell a first-timer to expect?
P.S. Check out what I look like now that I stopped dying my hair!