It turns out that I’m a magnet for unexpectedly hilarious spa experiences. When in Phuket, my friend Jade and I decided to get a Thai massage and it’s one of our best travel anecdotes to date, thanks to the masseuse who seemed intent on yanking my limbs from their sockets. I escaped in one piece thankfully but my surprised yelps hadn’t gone unnoticed – we still end up dissolving into laughter each time we remember it.
With that introduction, you may be reading on slightly apprehensively about the idea of a Moroccan hammam. But let me set your mind at ease: if you know what to expect, it can be a fantastic and invigorating experience. We, however, went in woefully unprepared and spent the majority of the time trying not to audibly giggle. You’ll almost certainly be wondering why on earth we didn’t do our research before booking this and honestly, I couldn’t tell you why not. But it was so memorable that I’m almost glad we didn’t!
So, what is a hammam?
Thought to originate in Turkey (although public bathing was common in Greek and Roman times), it’s basically a Middle Eastern steam treatment where you either wash yourself or pay a little bit extra to have someone else do the scrubbing for you. Neighbourhood Moroccan hammams are cheap to enter, separated by gender but you’ll have to be willing to bare all in front of a group to wash yourself down. Alterantely, you can pay a little extra to enjoy a hammam as a tourist and this is what we decided to treat yourselves to.
While walking down our favourite street off Jemaa el Fna square, we stumbled upon Riad Nesma completely by accident. When the beautifully tiled interior caught my eye, I shyly stepped in to take a photo before Jade and Emily noticed the spa menu. After a quick tour (it’s literally two rooms), we decided to take the plunge and book ourselves in for a hammam the following afternoon.
“Do we need to bring anything?”
“No, we provide everything you need so just yourselves!”
This was our final exchange as we left the riad so we returned the next day, excited for our relaxing hour in one of those beautiful steamy rooms. The attendant led us into a pretty standard looking spa treatment room with massage bed in the centre and a small bench where we sat and looked at each other expectantly. She returned a few minutes later and motioned for us to undress…completely. Now, being typical Brits, we’re definitely on the prudeish side and without even a flimsy paper knicker in sight, we immediately realised our error. Deciding to stick to our underwear, we trooped into the next room – imagine a more glamorous, tiled version of a sauna – where we waited apprehensively for what was to come next.
The Moroccan hammam experience
Until that point, I’d imagined the hammam as the kind of scrub you’d get on a spa day: a towel covering your modesty, maybe some argan oil to smooth everything over. So, when the attendant came in and proceeded to throw buckets of hot water over me, completely dousing my newly washed hair and the ONLY pair of underwear I had with me, I quickly realised that this was going to be a different kind of experience altogether. Once I was suitably soaked, the attendant applied traditional black soap (made with Argan oil) all over my body and let it sink in while she turned her attention to the others.
After the cleansing part of the ritual, it was time for exfoliation and let me tell you that they do not hold back. The kessa glove feels like it’s sandpapering your skin and while we knew that we’d be saying goodbye to our spray tans here, I prayed the attendant didn’t think we were super dirty with the insane amounts of gunk coming off us! She wasn’t shy about where she scrubbed either: forget pandering to our Western insecurities, she happily pulled our underwear outwards so that nowhere was missed, much to my shock the first time this happened!
Next, a type of mud was applied all over our bodies (my research tells me this is called rhassoul) and we were left to sit, laughing at how ridiculous we looked in our soaked underwear and brown smeared faces. After a few minutes, the attendant rejoined us to rinse the mud away – although I was slightly unprepared for the first bucket of water that hit my face – and kindly washed our hair before letting us towel off.
Under the cover of a towel finally, I realisesd that I had no spare pair in one of the most modest countries I’ve ever visited AND I’d opted to wear a white shirt that day too. Typical. Luckily, we’d only planned on a quick lunch before heading back to our riad so we threw on pashminas to protect our modesty and stepped back out into the bright sunshine.
My top tips for visiting a hammam in Marrakech
- Come prepared: wear a bikini if you don’t feel comfortable stripping down but expect the attendants to move it around
- Bring a spare pair of underwear for later and some clothes to change into
- Don’t wear contact lenses: the steam will dry them out quickly and you’ll have water poured over you from the head down several times
- Think of it like an extra intense bathing experience and you’ll be grand!
To give them full credit where it’s deserved, the staff at Riad Nesma were lovely: the attendant joined in laughing with us more than once, although I’m sure she just couldn’t believe how clueless we were! At the time, I wished I’d known what to expect but looking back, I can’t help being kind of glad I’ve got this story to tell. After all, what’s travel without a little uncertainty and discomfort? These moments can often be some of the most memorable parts of life and isn’t that what counts? I think so.
If you’ve ever been to a Moroccan hammam, what did you think? Or let me know if you’re thinking about it after reading this post!
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