When I travelled to Morocco, visiting a traditional bathhouse, or hammam, topped my to-do list. From my (light) research, I learned that the hammam experience varies throughout the Middle East. Generally, though, visitors can expect a traditional steam bath experience, accompanied by some sort of massage. More than anything, I wanted to immerse myself in a centuries-old tradition, socialize with local women, and — just maybe — walk away with skin that looked kissed by the Moroccan sun.
On my Highlights of Morocco tour, I informed my guide, L’houcine, that I wanted an authentic hammam experience. I had been approached in the streets with flyers plastered with the generic images that one would associate with couple’s massages, and — although tempting — that was not the experience I was after.
“You’ll find one in Fes,” he said. “A very clean one. I will show you when we get there.”
“What should I expect?” I asked.
“Well, there will be three pools: one with hot water, one with warm water, and one with cold water,” he said, then asked: “Do you want the massage?”
I said yes (who wouldn’t?), and L’houcine agreed to organize it for me.
After a dizzying tour of the incredibly colourful, winding souks of Fes, I was more than ready to be pampered. I was also able to wrangle eight of my fellow travellers to come with me. Upon arrival, L’houcine sent the men and women in the group on our separate ways. Upon leaving the side of our guide, I heard him shout out the Arabic phrase for “not so hard,” just in case we needed it. Huh? But before I could ask why, he was gone.
Lesson 1: Bring your own shampoo, flip-flops, towel, and floor mat
Once in the change room, we quickly stripped down to our bathing suits and flip-flops. We handed our bags to the attendant, who gave us a scrub glove and a glob of black soap made from pressed olive skins. After a brief bit of confusion as to why she let only select members of our group keep our flip-flops, and confiscated the others (we figured later that it was because of glitter and/or materials that could fall off), we entered the steam room.
The room was far smaller than I had expected. How could three pools fit in here? Where were the pools, even? As my vision started to regain focus through the steam, I found myself staring at a sea of nude women and children, and multicoloured buckets scattered across the hammam floor.
In our awkwardly-clothed state, we tiptoed to an empty spot along the back wall and lowered to the floor. After sitting there, dumbfounded, for a couple of minutes, a French-speaking member of the group approached one of the ladies to give us some pointers.
“Take the hot water from the bucket, and pour it on yourself,” she told her. “Then scrub. But do not let the used water back into the bucket.”
Lesson 2: Do as the local people do
We began reaching into the buckets, some cold, some hot, and deduced that the buckets were colour-coded for water temperature. Bathers are meant to start with hot water, and finish with a cool rinse. After a couple of minutes, I felt a woman to my left tug on my arm, and motion for me to take off my bathing suit top. I can’t do that, I thought. I just met these girls on my tour, and it would be awkward. But she wasn’t taking no for an answer, so I submitted, and removed my bikini top with a swift elbow to my friend Allison’s ribs, encouraging her to do the same. The woman looked pleased.
At that point, the first “masseuse” walked in, and made a bee-line in my direction. What happened next is a bit of a blur — literally, since it was hard to see through the combination of steam, soap in my eyes, and having my face smooshed into the floor. By the way, this is where the floor mat comes in handy. The physical sensations were significant enough that I later wrote home about them.
Lesson 3: Brace yourself
The masseuse put my scrub glove over one hand, grabbed my wrist with her other, and proceeded to scrub off what felt like the top five layers of my skin, twisting me into a pretzel on the floor as she went along to get the hard-to-reach spots. I remember lying on my back, squished in between Allison, the wall, my masseuse, a couple of buckets, and a little girl washing her doll’s hair, thinking, “How do I always get myself into these types of situations?” The rest of my group observed wide-eyed, with a healthy dose of apprehension. But one by one, the rest of my group got plucked from the wall, de-suited, and given the same rejuvenating treatment.
Lesson 4: Relax and have a chat
Flexibility fully tested and three pounds of skin lighter, I resumed my place on the wall. Trying to rebalance my mental state, I turned to the woman who I encountered earlier, who met my glance with a warm smile and gestured for me to join her. I did, and she turned around and requested in English that I help wash her back. As I scrubbed, we chatted about her sister, who lived in Montreal, her babies, my boyfriend, our jobs, and how often she visits the hammam. We continued our conversation face to face, and she would intermittently launch the bucket water at my face, mid-sentence.
Despite feeling protective over the few layers of skin that I had left, I agreed when she offered to wash my back. This new position allowed me to help the young girl beside me wash her doll’s hair, and to observe the women around me, lathering up and sharing a laugh with their neighbours. I quickly learned that the hammam is first and foremost a social space, and I was happy and honoured to be a part of it.
Before I knew it, the group was filtering back out into the change room. I’m not sure if I felt like I was floating as I left due to my thinned epidermal layer, or the sheer elation at having one of the most sensational experiences of my life. Maybe it was a bit of both. I was sure, however, that this had been one of my most immersive travel experiences. I can’t wait to do it again.
Article originally published on September 13, 2017. Updated on April 15, 2021.
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