The new hammam: Morocco’s luxury scrubdowns
Relax after your hammam treatment on a daybed suspended above the mosaic-tiled pool. (La Mamounia)
Being next-to-naked with strangers in a scorching room with troughs draining flaky strings of sloughed off dead skin cells? Not everyone’s idea of a vacation. But there is a reason why Moroccan hammams have been around for centuries. Most locals go at least once a week to gossip while sweating, bathing and exfoliating. The intense heat opens the pores, the soaps and scrubs moisturize and exfoliate the skin, and the combination of vigorous massage and intense heat leave you blissfully lightheaded.
For the average tourist, entering a hammam can be an intimidating endeavour. There are no instructions, few have English-speaking staffs, and the warren of heated, domed rooms remain at temperatures far harsher than Westerners might be used to.
A new breed of hammams aims to make the local experience more accessible, by adapting Moroccan tradition to Western sensibilities. The best, by far, is at the palatial hotel La Mamounia, in Marrakesh. Sitting on the 200-year-old gardens of Prince Moulay Mamoun, this recently renovated grand dame hotel embodies the cinematic Casablanca-era glamour that has long lured travellers to Morocco.
Just like traditional hammams, which sit oft-unmarked down the winding alleyways of the souk, La Mamounia’s spa feels like a secret den. Passing through an elaborately-tiled courtyard of gurgling fountains, you wind down a candlelit, cobalt-hued stairway. You emerge into the hushed silence of a subterranean room where hand-carved stone arches frame a reflecting pool lit by oversized lanterns of cream and crimson.
In lieu of stripping directly down to my skivvies, I donned an ultra-plush Kashwere robe and cute Havianas flip-flops for the walk to the hammam area. Here, I disrobed and reclined in a private black marble cave, the steam filling my lungs and, they tell me, opening my pores. Therapists adjust the temperatures for less hearty types like me (an Irish girl who faints at Bikram yoga), but you will still get an intense sweat going.
After 15 or 20 restorative minutes, a bathing suit-clad therapist arrived to guide me through the treatment. This is the real blessing of the more modern hammam experience as tourists lacking in Arabic skills often bumble around the souk hammams naked and confused about when to soap, when to scrub and why that large woman threw a bucket of icy water over their heads.
The rest of my treatment was a similarly smooth introduction to the mysteries of this steamy tradition: in lieu of the glycerine and olive soap of the souks, I was scrubbed with the hotel’s purer version, a simple mix of pressed olives and salt. The industrial sand-paper texture of the traditional exfoliating kessa glove was replaced with a slightly gentler version. And after it had done its duty removing layer after layer of travel grit and grime, my newly exposed layer of skin was coated in mineral-rich clay from the Atlas Mountains. The clay, or ghassoul, draws toxins from the skin as it hardens.
It is at this point that you might yearn for the bustling, social, sauna-like atmosphere of the traditional hammam as you must lie naked on a slab of marble while the clay hardens. As awkward as it is to bathe topless with strangers, being alone, arrayed naked on a platform in a doorless room made me feel a bit like a body on an operating table. However, my perseverance was rewarded when the therapist returned, washing the mud away with fragrant almond soap and anointing my skin in moisturizing argan oil. Sweeter rewards lay in the culminating massage, where my skin was further softened by amber honey scrubs and toning rose cream while being thoroughly kneaded by hot local Tadelakt stones (the very same ones that form those ornate entrance archways).
Though La Mamounia and the new crop of modern hammams are more Westernized, they still channel Morocco’s ability to simultaneously transfix all the senses. I emerged from that subterranean cocoon floating on the minty sweetness of my post-treatment tea, the rosy scent of my skin mixing with the bougainvillea in the gardens, my eyes drowsily romanced by the intricate stonework and tiled courtyards. Modern but with a sense of place. You cannot ask for much more from a spa treatment.
Other modern hammams in Marrakesh: