I have a love/hate relationship with spas and related treatments. I really like the idea of them; being pampered and emerging from the den of relaxation in a Zen state of mind. I almost never enjoy them though, instead I stress out about whether or not I’m relaxed enough and I end up feeling like I’ve been to the chiropractor instead of a massage therapist. I met my match though in Marrakech with its famous hammam treatment.
A hammam is the quintessential Moroccan spa treatment, the likes of which are unknown anywhere else in the world. This is probably planned, since the treatment isn’t all about unicorns and rainbows, it’s a tough, no holds barred service that guarantees to clean.
In its most basic form, a hammam consists of several stages of cleansing, including alternating hot and cold water, lavish use of the area’s famous black soap and lots and lots of scrubbing. There are many public hammams found throughout Marrakech, but for a real treat every traveler should splurge for a treatment at one of the many posh riads found in the old medina.
On the second day of our tour through Marrakech, we decided to join the Splash Morocco day trip to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains for an exciting white water tubing experience. Afterwards, we were chatting with our guide Andy who asked if we were going to take a hammam during our stay. After some convincing, I agreed but Andy left me with a word of advice, “Bring your own swimsuit.”
Nothing in Marrakech is easy to find and I don’t know why they even bother with street names and numbers. Regardless of the laughable map in hand, I found La Maison Arabe, a luxurious riad, nestled in the old medina.
Walking through the lobby on the way to the spa, I instantly regretted not staying at the riad versus the generic Western hotel we foolishly booked. The décor was decidedly Moroccan, without being campy or ostentatious.
I was led through the lavish spa, lit by candles and a fragrant aroma filling the air, the scent of which I can only call ‘exotic.’ My French is ok, but not great, and their English was ok, not great. That meant the universal language of all travelers came into play – odd and sometimes wild hand gestures. Regardless of the method of communication, the message was clear, she gave me a small packet that looked like a condom and told me to change.
I nervously tore open the wrapper and Andy’s warning came rushing back, it was a small bit of nylon, somewhat fashioned into a Speedo. It was so small I don’t think you can even call it a proper piece of underwear and certainly not swimwear. They honestly intended for me to wear this during the treatment. I tossed it aside and instead put on my trunks. I’m all for cultural experiences, but I wasn’t about to go into the hammam naked.
Unlike the public hammams in town, the Maison Arabe has a separate, and private, hammam chamber set up for its guests. I was led by the presupposed masseuse and entered a chamber completely lined in tile, with a series of built-in benches. I was told, pointed really, to lay on the closest bench face down. I acquiesced, but before I could do anything else I was washed down in ice cold water, and then left to reflect on the shock of the experience.
As I recovered from the shock, steam started to fill the room and before I knew it, I was enveloped by a hot mist. Just as I started to relax, the prison guard/masseuse reentered, turned off the steam and began peeling off my skin.
If you are familiar with the loofah or even one of those fancy scrub brushes, it’s not even a fraction of the gommage that takes place during a hammam. After she successfully removed a few layers of my epidermis, it was time for the unguents.
A mixture of oils and lotions were used, but the one thing I recognized was the famous Moroccan savon noir, or black soap. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes black soap, but it’s a thick, gel-like soap that has the consistency and look of tar. It also has a fierce reputation for microabrasion and detoxification, so I remained still as the expensive ointment was spread liberally about my corpus, then forcefully washed away with the aid of the scrubbiest of brushes.
After the cleansing, which was VERY thorough (enough said) there was more washing, both hot and cold, until finally I felt as if I had been as thoroughly cleaned as a human could possibly be. I was left on the bench, sore but clean, happy but confused. I reflected on the experience until I somehow got the energy to walk drunkenly across the hall to the changing area. I awkwardly changed into my street clothes, paid the cashier and ordered a cab back to my hotel where I promptly took a nap, it didn’t matter that it was still mid-morning.
Although it’s not for the faint of heart, taking a hammam is a must-do activity for anyone visiting Marrakech.
15 thoughts on “Getting Naked in Marrakech”
I love hammams! I just went to one when I was in Miami. Definitely not for the faint of heart though you’re right about that.
wow matt! you’ve told this so vividly- love it. i’d really want to try this for the experience, but i wonder if i could handle it. the nudity/thoroughness part- no problem (enjoy clothing optional hot springs,etc), but the intensity of the scrubbing, i’m not so sure. i’m someone who has thumb/finger print bruises after thai massages! does it actually leave your skin raw? or just the combo of pressure and temperature that made you sore?
It’s really the alternating water temperature and scrubbing that make it intense, but you should be fine. I have a friend though with skin issues who would never be able to do this though.
That really doesn’t sound like a very pleasant experience Matt… Did it actually make you clearner than a standard shower would?
Wow..sounds like they “roughed” you up a bit!! LOL! This was a fun read and you’re quite the comedian, I must say. I laughed out loud a number of times…not enough nylon, huh!
Ha, why thank you, I appreciate that. It may have hurt a bit, but it was still a great experience.
A barely-there speedo in a condom-sized wrapper?! Haha! I’ll be going to Marrakech in the winter and hadn’t considered going to a hammam, but I definitely will now – maybe it’s the sadistic part of me? Usually the idea of having my skin peeled off and a very “thorough” cleansing doesn’t appeal too much!
Also curious about this black soap!
It’s a great city, you’ll have a wonderful time
See, I have never been in a hammam, thought I still have to visit Morocco. When in Tunisia I chose to sleep in the desert, instead. Good post!
Yes, I agree. It is very easy to get Lost in Marrakech. One day (hope) somebody make a nice map which shows all the where to go.
Can Hammam help me to wash my clothes during Gommage? so then I don’t need to bring my changes.
I took a trip to mexico but didn’t do a Hammam…it does seem hardcore–but also sounds like an interesting experience…maybe i’ll see what NYC has to offer in terms of hammams. Matt–I’m glad you made it through okay–did you have a feeling of refreshingness for at least a couple days after? (does it even make your skin feel different–like, do you feel lighter?)
I enjoyed your post about your experiences in Morocco (as well as how to get properly clean), I was in Marrakech a few years ago, but what I loved most was going everyday into the Medina and getting amongst the people. Plus I didn’t walk away empty handed either.
Look forward to more post and new tweets from you, keep it up Matt
“(I was washed down in ice cold water, and then left to reflect on the shock of the experience.
the prison guard/masseuse reentered, turned off the steam and began peeling off my skin.)”
Hahaha , you made me laugh
They must hate you to do that to you. Bless you :)
I am from Marrakech and was surprised of what you dicribed, we don’t that in a such raugh way.there’s no ice cold water involved in the operation and the scrub shoudn’t be ruagh.
I love Hammam and enjoy it very much.
Just come back from Marrakech and absolutely loved the hommam and massage
It was surely a hamman for tourists. Usually in Arabic countries, hammans have separated sections for men and women and the gommage/scrub is done by same sex masseur/masseuse. It can be very energetic. Hammans are very relaxing.
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