Leave your modesty at the door

Originally published on CultureBitch, June 2010.

Should you find yourself in Morocco – and I highly recommend you make every effort to do so – the hammam is an experience not to be missed. I must confess, the hammam Rob and I visited was not a true locals-only place, in which men and women are segregated. Those places are everywhere in the medina, nondescript doors in alleyways with the Arabic and (sometimes) English for ‘men’ or ‘women’ above the door. No, Les Bains de Marrakech is a lovely spa retreat which accommodated couples, definitely designed for travelers but where more modern Moroccans go as well (Rob spoke with someone in the waiting room who was from Morocco and said he and his girlfriend came there frequently together).

We knew what to expect, yet the experience surprised and delighted us with how unusual, and then thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing it turned out to be.

We were first taken to separate changing areas, given a big fluffy white robe and slippers, and told to remove all clothing but underwear bottoms. The changing area was luxurious, with long leather couches, wooden lockers for your things, marble showers. We were then returned to a relaxing room smelling of incense where we waited, on leather lounge chairs, to be brought together to our personal steam room.

That’s when the hammam starts – and where all modesty ends. We were led to a small room that was completely marble, with two long benches covered in a cushion. Robes left outside, our attendant instructed us (in French; none of the attendants spoke English) to sit on opposite benches and then proceeded to douse us (gently) in buckets of perfectly warm water. She told us to lay face down, then she closed the door and left.

The room was hot. Incredibly hot. The goal, of course, is to steam and sweat out all the impurities. And there comes a moment when you think you’re not going to be able to stand it much longer, and right when you think you’re going to need to open the door for some cold air, in comes the attendant for the next ‘phase’…the black soap scrubdown.

Yes, I said scrubdown. Two attendants came in this time, one for each of us, and rubbed black soap (made from Moroccan clay) over every inch of our bodies. If there was any modesty left after the water dousing, it’s really gone now. Now, we are instructed to lie on our backs and rest. Door closes, we’re steaming in black soap, and truly enjoying it. Laying there, in this foreign place having such an unusual experience, and looking at each other covered in black soap, at first you feel a bit silly. But once you relax and just let go, it’s unbelievably soothing.

Next phase: the attendants–two this time–come back, and proceed to exfoliate every inch of what was covered in black soap (except your face – which did get the soap treatment). It’s a rough scrub, but not unpleasant. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to someone washing you.

Finally, it’s rinsing-off time, for which there is a handy rainfall shower in the corner. We take turns. The attendant (just one now) is quick to assist with helping you rinse every bit of soap off (that was a bit weird). She helps us into our robes, and then a different person led us to a relaxation area – a long, high-ceilinged room, with low cushioned lounge chairs, and sheer fabric curtains draped between every few chairs for privacy. She returns with small glasses of tea – the sweet, mint tea Morocco is famous for. We rest there for a while, wrapped in our fluffy robes and sipping hot tea. I have never been more relaxed in my life. Other couples are in this large room as well, but the chairs are spaced well apart.

After about ten minutes or so we are collected and led upstairs to our massage. We are together in a room for this as well, each with a masseuse. The massage was fantastic; if you’ve had one you know how good a good massage can be, and this did not disappoint. The room was nice and warm, with a sheer curtain partially separating the two tables, Moroccan rugs on the floor and very soothing music. One difference we noted from massages we’ve had here in the US, is that they’re not all puritanical about keeping you covered up, tucking sheets around every limb while they massage it and then stuffing it back under the covers when they’re done. You are loosely draped with a sheet, which they freely fold up or down as needed to uncover roughly half your body at a time. I’m not sure if this is a Moroccan thing, or a European thing, but it was rather refreshing and definitely relaxing.

The entire experience was so relaxing, in fact, that we booked a second full hammam/massage treatment for the day before we left Morocco. Indulgent, I know, but then again we were on vacation in the most exotic place we’ve ever been so far. And I can certainly tell you, the next time we go to Marrakech, we will definitely be going for more.

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