The Moroccan hammam is an intriguing concept to many – what is really happening behind these closed steamy doors and how will you fare as a foreigner?
I’m not a girly girl when it comes to beauty things. I think sitting at a salon, getting my hair cut, is rather dull, the few times I got a manicure I managed to mess it up as soon as it was done, and I think it’s great to be single in German winter because I don’t have to shave my legs. So with that baseline established, I was surprised that from my very first visit I was a big fan of the Moroccan hammam.
Want to skip all my yada yada?
The real Moroccan hammam
The hammam in Morocco is more than a place where you go to to get clean. It is a spa ritual, an experience, and above all a place to socialize for men and women alike (separately of course!). For a foreigner like me, a visit at a real Moroccan hammam was absolutely terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
A visit at the public hammam in Morocco
Mind you, it might be easier if you speak more French than I do, because anything else than l’eau was lost on me and hence I’m sure I missed out on a few intricacies of the real hammam experience. But as my friend Amanda pointed out: don’t overly stare or steal someone’s water and you will be fine.
When I say real Moroccan hammam, I mean a public hammam where you will sit on the floor in a slightly steamy, warm room. You merely splash a bucket of water over the area where you want to sit and get started. Admittedly that is not for people who bring their disinfecting wipes everywhere.
Begin to soak yourself with warm water and lather savon noir or savon beldi all over your body. This black olive soap is rich in vitamin E and will leave your skin super soft. You rinse and repeat. After this is done, you have the choice to hire someone to scrub you or do the gommage yourself. I recommend the former as I find scrubbing when done correctly, requires the same vigor as waxing. It is not pain-free and easier to endure if someone else inflicts it upon you.
At this point, I should mention that you will be naked, except for some knickers, and so will the lady who is scrubbing you. You may even hold her boobs by accident, don’t worry that can happen, and mine didn’t seem too fussed with it. Moroccan women may seem conservative in public, but in the privacy of the hammam amongst other women, all bets are off.
You will also shed lots of black skin. Yes, indeed you are that dirty! While I wanted to hide the evidence, it was sort of everywhere and therefore impossible to hide. The lady who was scrubbing me seemed pleased with herself. “Spaghetti, spaghetti!” Needless to say, I didn’t feel like eating spaghetti for dinner after this.
In hammams, you can also get a massage or at least a good stretch once you are clean. Mind you, chances are you are still on that same floor with your leftover spaghetti but just go with it – you have survived so far, you will survive this too. Afterward, rinse again with some more water (and if you get lucky you may have your entire body lathered with the very expensive shampoo you brought along) and leave a skin lighter.
The hammam spa experience
You can go the more touristy, pricey (280 MAD and up compared to 80 MAD at a public hammam) route and go to one of the many spas in Marrakech. In fact, I had to ask multiple times to be shown to a real hammam as most Moroccans will assume that you are
a sissy a tourist who will prefer some comfort. But the hammam spas have their advantages and usually make you feel like a princess they are that pretty.
I can recommend Le Bain Bleu in Marrakech or the spa of the Royal Mansour, one of the best hammams in Marrakech. Instead of lying on the floor you will lie on a warm marble bench, which you may or may not slide off from once the soap comes into play, but it is nevertheless fancier. You also have some privacy, and the lady who is scrubbing you will be dressed. Better for the more modest visitors. At the Royal Mansour, the usually very olive-smelling black olive soap smells of orange blossom (the hotel has its own line of spa products), and you get to chill with gold-leafed petit fours and tea afterward.
But and that is a big but – the scrubbing is not nearly as thorough. I don’t know why but it happened to me at all the spas I went to do a hammam. Maybe the spas think tourists can’t take a proper hammam scrub or won’t be able to tell the difference, but sadly there was no spaghettis peeling off me.
DIY hammam at home
Still, your skin will be soft, and you may want to take some of this Moroccan hammam magic back home with you. You can buy both, savon noir and a kessa, the scrubbing glove, at literally at every corner shop in Morocco. There you get the soap by the pound in a plastic bag, which is the cheapest, but also the least convenient for travel or to store. In fact, mine disintegrated after a few weeks, which is not something I want to smell or see again. For a little more money you can buy the soap in a proper plastic tub or if you want to be fancy in a small glass jar which also makes a great gift. Some come scented with roses or orange blossoms, but I must admit that these are lost on my nose as the olive smell is quite overpowering.
So with all that said and me so not being a beauty ritual person, I still took a few pounds of savon noir and some gloves with me. As one does in case, there is an olive soap shortage.
I must admit that I have not used them once. Today as a Thailand beach holiday is looming on the horizon I thought it was time to get the glove out again and get my skin sun ready.
I’m sad to report that I was unsuccessful in making black spaghetti. And so it seems that for my next Morocco trip I must really up my French and find out more secrets of the hammam massage and scrubbing trade. Until then I will be content with semi-soft skin while drinking Mai Thais.
Tips for your Moroccan hammam visit
- Moroccan hammams are separated by men and women, but both sides pretty much offer the same services (or so I have been told by my Moroccan guy friend).
- If heading to a public hammam, you need to bring your own kessa and savon noir. Some sell it but not all so just stop at a kiosk before – you can find it at almost any shop in Morocco. Also pack your regular shampoo and conditioner, a towel, and make sure to wear some underwear that can a) get wet and b) you don’t mind being seen in public with – leave the La Perla thong at home! Some women bring a little mat to sit on to the public hammam, not a bad idea for hygienic reasons.
- A few words in French or Arabic go a long way in Morocco in general and the Moroccan hammam in particular. Upon my first visit, all I got was l’eau.
- If you don’t want to pay a woman to scrub you, you can do it yourself or go with your girlfriend – you will at least need help with your back, and as I said, gommage takes a certain vigor.
- Don’t forget body lotion to make that baby-soft skin even softer afterward and some comfy clothes.
- The hammam scrub really gets your circulation going, so it is best to rest afterward – perfect excuse to have some sweet mint tea and a nap.
- Shy people best start with a visit to a hammam spa to enjoy the experience and get used to it. Honestly, a public hammam is not for the fainthearted…
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