“Do we keep our pants on?” – Somehow, we’d found ourselves spontaneously almost-naked in a room of strangers. Was this about to be the most memorable story of our trip?
When browsing the various activities one can enjoy in Morocco, you’ll likely come across the traditions of a hammam. Those unfamiliar with this activity might ask, so what IS a hammam? How does it differ from a spa? And where should I start with finding a good one? To settle any concerns or questioning thoughts, here’s what my experience of a hammam is like, and what to expect at a hammam in Marrakech!
What Is A Hammam?
A hammam is a public bathing house, now often synonymous with the practice that takes place there, where a number of steam rooms are used for bathing oneself as part of daily life in Islamic culture. Using a similar traditional method akin to Roman baths, the process inside a hammam allows visitors to perspire in dry heat, followed by full body scrubbing (by oneself or another), and finally being washed by cooler water.
Baths are separated by gender, and are seen as a place to socialise, relax, and cleanse. Particularly in Morocco, a hammam is considered a space where one can perform ritual purification, often before prayer (hence why hammams can often be found near mosques).
You can also get Turkish hammams, but in this instance we’ll be focussing on Moroccan hammams, as I’ve not had the pleasure to experience a Turkish one yet! Moroccan hammams are sometimes misnamed as Turkish baths, which is a misnomer as Morocco never came under Ottoman rule (a technicality, but worth noting). In Arabic languages, “hammam” means “bathroom” in all senses, which has possibly led to such confusion.
As visitors to a hammam, you can pay to have someone else provide the products, and scrub you down for a treatment. If you attend a public hammam which is more commonly frequented by locals, you’ll pay a lot less but likely have to bring your own supplies and scrub and bathe yourself.
What To Expect At A Hammam
Now you know the etymology and meaning of what a hammam is, you’ll be wondering what to expect at a hammam, from where to find the entrance, to stripping off!
Finding The Entrance
First of all, they might be harder to find than you expect. Intended to be discreet and seamlessly blending into the medina, finding the entrance or signage of one might well require a bit of looking. Oftentimes, locals will be near the entrance eager to entice you in, or offer you a flyer of info about the hammam.
Hammams also don’t have windows (for obvious reasons, can you imagine?!), so once you do find the entrance you’ll probably be guided through some narrow passageways, maybe even down stairs, and be fully secluded from the outside world.
The hammam we attended was thankfully one of the easiest to find. Hammam Mouassine is right in the middle of a square, next to Mouassine Fountain – you really can’t miss it!
There’s a chance that the staff at a Moroccan hammam won’t know too much English, and unless you’ve brushed up on your French or Moroccan Arabic, it might make communicating a little harder. Be patient and as clear as possible with anything you’re uncomfortable with or confused about. It’s a pretty intimate experience so it’s good to create some kind of rapport with the person scrubbing you for 20 minutes!
Having said that, these ladies have a method and if you’re willing to just go with the flow you won’t have any problems. During our visit, they weren’t the chattiest bunch – rather there to get the job done in an efficient manner. Which was totally fine, in fact it made a change from the incessant heckling from vendors in the souks outside!
What To Bring To A Hammam
Mostly, just yourself! If you’re looking for a hammam experience where you pay to have someone scrub you down they’ll likely have all the supplies you need for such a treatment. In any case, bringing a change of clothes (especially underwear if nothing else!) is a great idea – you’d probably rather not leave in sweaty at best, sopping wet at worst, clothes!
If you’re planning to go the DIY route for your visit to a Moroccan hammam, bringing the following items should see you through:
- Scrubbing mitt (kessa)
- Savon noir (black soap)
- Shampoo (optional)
- Bowel for scooping water
- Plastic sheet to sit on
You can buy kits for such an experience from plenty of souk stalls, or ask your accommodation for tips. You’ll need to bring it along with you, as local hammams don’t offer you to purchase these items.
It goes without saying, there will be other people bathing during your visit (that’s kinda the deal). This means that other women (or men, not that I can speak for a men’s hammam experience!) will see you starkers. For most of us, this is probably the most nerve-wracking aspect. But there’s really nothing to worry about. The attendants, and the locals will hardly be paying any attention to you (or the fact you’re sans clothing), and any other visitors will be far too preoccupied with their own worries to even think about you!
The most you’d have to think about would be going along with someone you already know. Is your friendship ready for this level of exposure? You bet! It’s worth checking in with your accompanying friend if they have any concerns so that you’re both on the same page and can give each other some reassurances if needed.
Honestly though, it’s nothing to worry about. We’ve all got bodies, and in a safe and secure (and actually relatively private) place like a hammam there’s nowhere you’d feel more comfortable in such a revealing situation!
Different Treatments Available
As mentioned, the different price points will determine the treatment you receive at your hammam. You can pay a premium for a long, luxurious scrub, wrap, mask, massage – the works! Or, you can go the short and sweet simple route with bring the basic supplies to scrub yourself down. Note, even if you chose to bring your own you can likely pay to have someone scrub you still.
My Morrocan Hammam Experience
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect at a hammam myself. I could make an educated(ish) guess, but that wouldn’t mean I’d be prepared for living it out in reality. I’m certainly not prudish or shy necessarily, particularly not with like-minded friends willing to take the plunge alongside me. But could all that change?! Here’s my Moroccan hammam experience.
Choosing A Good Morrocan Hammam
For us, authenticity was crucial. We wanted to make sure that our Moroccan Hammam experience was realistic and with a traditional approach, not Westernised in a way that meant we would effectively be at a spa. We hoped for something that we couldn’t get at home, and something we could be assured in calling a hammam experience.
On the other hand, we also didn’t want to intrude on local life. Plenty of hammams are open to tourists and visitors to experience, however, we didn’t want to do so at the detriment to others’ time spent there. After all, this is the norm for the locals and we certainly didn’t want to get in their way! Further to that, I’d come across the odd horror story of a friend who’d visited an authentic hammam, which was maybe a little too authentic… In the unhygienic sense. Of course we wanted to steer clear of any facilities that might be a negative experience, so we were given the wise words to avoid poorer or very local-heavy areas. This seemed to make sense, and we felt confident that we would only end up in such a situation if we didn’t do thorough research.
After a decent amount of research including ruling our extortionately expensive options, Western-style spas, and excessive package deals, we found the Hammam Mouassine, thanks to the trusty Lonely Planet guide. I had liked this option from the start of our initial investigations, as it was praised for being authentic, while also being tourist-friendly. Secondly, the Hammam Mouassine is the oldest hammam in Marrakech dating back to the 16th Century, and if that doesn’t scream authenticity I don’t know what will! Due to its age, we were aware it might not be the prettiest of bathhouses, but it sure as heck would be a good one. We were happy to continue browsing around, but I was confident we would make a good decision going to this hammam in Marrakech.
How Much Does A Hammam Cost In Marrakech?
This can vary greatly, depending on where you’re going for your hammam in Marrakech. Public hammams tend to cost the least, from 10dh (80p) where you bring your own and it’s a very much DIY approach, way up to the hundreds of dirham (as much as £80) for a full-blown scrub, massage, spa treatment.
One of the best aspects of Hammam Mouassine was the price being neatly within budget at 150dh (£12) for a 30 minute session that included all the soaps, scrubs, and utensils.
We knew the price would be around the 150dh mark, so when we stumbled across the hammam almost by accident, we initially intended to just enquire about the price and take some info for tomorrow. This wasn’t quite what happened, though. Our British politeness got in the way, and the doorman began to guide us down narrowing alleyways to who know’s where! Assuming we’d find ourselves either where we hoped to be (with someone who could help us) or entirely lost for good (sounds like how a missing person’s case starts), we put our faith in humanity and followed.
What I assume happened is that the miscommunication across languages meant this man thought we wanted a hammam there and then, and as this dawned on us, I turned to my travel partner Hannah and said “Looks like we’re getting one right now, then! Are you ok with that?” I think we both felt suddenly apprehensive and underprepared, but we shook it off and marched on with all the confidence we could muster. Taken past the men’s hammam entrance at the front of the building and past a lot of wood (where I imagine the workers who ensure the continuous heating of the hammam carry out their tasks), we found ourselves in the quiet street with a big “FEMALE” sign over a decorative doorway. A few knocks and a woman appeared at the bottom of the stairs, the man left us as we were ushered down.
Once inside and with minimal mutual languages, we managed to pick out the treatment we were after. There was not a wide choice besides the standard scrub and wrap and a scrub with a massage. Fine by us, as we wanted something simple and opted for the Beldi formula: a black soap scrub and natural Rhassoul wrap. We paid our 150dh, and nervously anticipated our next steps.
Are You Fully Naked In A Moroccan Hammam?
Again, depending on where you go you might be given disposable underwear to keep your modesty (and abide our own cultural norms about nudity around strangers!). For us, it was a slightly different story.
After paying for our sessions up front and were guided through to a cool tiled changing room. You can assume to expect a lot of guiding in a hammam experience, primarily due to the language barrier and ignorance on our behalf!
We noticed a few women sitting nearby, entirely naked. This isn’t exactly revolutionary, we’re all adults and it’s not unlike a swimming pool changing room, if only a little more confident. We stood unsure if this was our cue to follow suit, but waiting until gestures to our shoes and then eventually clothes were made (we didn’t want to do it wrong!). We stood in our underwear, slightly giggling like the awkward people we are, and I asked if we should also remove those. We took off our bras, but seeing the staff wearing pants we kept those on, assuming that was the guests’ norm.
Now, I then assumed we’d remain mostly naked for the entirety of our treatments, which for Hannah was the case. In my situation, however, things went a little differently.
The clearly very experienced woman doing my scrub had a system, and she was sticking to it. Around halfway through my scrub, lying on the warm wet floors of the hammam, she quickly whipped off my pants for me. It appeared they were getting in the way of her giving my legs and stomach the scrub they so desperately needed, apparently! I didn’t mind as I had initially expected the hammam to be a fully-naked experience, and seeing everyone else doing so it seemed to be perfectly fine for visitors too. It was maybe just the manner and speed which took me by surprise!
While I didn’t mind her no-nonsense approach, I totally understand others might not be so comfortable. If that’s the case, you absolutely should consider if a traditional hammam is right for you, and possibly look into more spa-like treatments where modesty is more recognised. You might be able to find facilities that offer disposable underwear. Or, if you do want the experience but without being exposed, try to explain so beforehand by learning a key phrase or two in French (and Moroccan Arabic, if possible), or writing it down.
Going Solo At A Moroccan Hammam
So, back to the story. We’re sort of naked. We’re in an unexpected situation. But honestly, we were both really excited! Chatter of how smooth our skin would soon be consumed our conversation as we were led through to the very back, very hot room of the hammam. Another woman lay sprawled on the floor, evidently entranced by her scrub! We were told to start oiling up, which we obediently did. The smooth savon noir is like silk to touch. And with the hot water and sweat we instantly began to feel the therapy working its magic.
Before long, my attendant came and took my arm, leading me to the larger room filled with locals performing their rituals. This is when Hannah and I realised we’d be separated. Although a little confused, we didn’t mind at all. It’s such a personal experience, it’s highly unlikely we would have considered this an activity to do “together” anyway!
If you’re thinking about going to a Moroccan hammam but worried about being alone, you needn’t be concerned. So many other women, locals and visitors alike, are there by themselves. And while it is seen as a place to socialise, it was surprisingly quiet and hushed in the echoing halls. Rushing water was the primary sound, so you wouldn’t be out of place being alone, especially not when you’re receiving a treatment rather than taking the DIY approach.
Oil, Scrub, & Wash – The Moroccan Hammam Treatment
Once in position, we began the treatment. When the say full body scrub they MEAN full body, the satisfying scratch of the mitt left my skin feeling raw at first, I won’t deny that she was really going for it! Once I began to see the chunks of peeling skin curl up along my arms I knew that I absolutely needed this. While hammams are open almost 24/7, it pays to go at the end of the day after you’ve walked through busy, dirty streets for hours. Really get your money’s worth!
30 minutes may not sound a lot, but it felt like plenty of time. I lay limply as I was yanked in various directions according to the attendant’s wishes, an arm flapping here or there, legs not really sure what to do with themselves. I must admit to finding it slightly humorous, a constant mix of “How did I end up here?!” and “I want this everyday, it is SO relaxing” left conflicting emotions of relaxation and amusement – but on the whole I loved it.
The most I worried throughout the session was when a stray bit of soap ended up in my eye, giving me an unfortunate need to persistently blink – which did not go unnoticed. While my face was lathered up, water was chucked at me on more than one occasion. Unglamorous I know, but it did the job.
Once the black soap has been throughly scraped off and I was reborn, it was time for round 2 – the wrap! This part really isn’t as clear to me what was going on or the need for it, but it felt nice and I enjoyed the additional TLC my body was getting. After my hair was washed with shampoo, I was sad that we were coming to the end of our experience.
It was right when Hannah reappeared all wrapped up in a towel that I was promptly hauled upright and dumped over the head with a ginormous bucket of hot water. And yes, I was still completed bare. A knowing moment of eye contact followed by giggles at our surprise of how the situation had developed since we’d parted, I was finally handed my towel and we were given a small changing room to return to our normal states.
“Feel my skin?” became the favourite phrase for the next 3 hours and once we left floating on a smooth, clean cloud we hot-footed it back to our Riad to switch into nice, fresh clean clothes.
I have no doubt that visiting the Moroccan hammam will be a memory we’ll giggle about for years to come. We fully embraced the experience and I’m so glad we made the most of visiting such an authentic but welcoming place for my first time! While I might not have initially known what to expect in a hammam, I certainly do now and would 100% be keen to go again!
Would you go to a hammam, or have you been already? Does my experience sound familiar to yours?
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