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
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: