Our days in Fes were good, and we were enjoying a continuous flow of new adventures. Today was to be a hammam experience for the girls and myself. Similar to a Turkish bath, a hammam is a steam room where Moroccans habitually go each week to bathe, as most homes are without shower facilities. We could have opted for a plush tourist style hammam, but we wanted the traditional Moroccan hammam experience. Our host (Riad al Atik) graciously arranged it for us.
Unlike the tourist option where everything is provided, we needed to bring the authentic goopy brown, olive oil Moroccan hammam soap, a scrubbing mitt, and towel. Walking through the Fes Medina, our first stop was the souk to get the supplies. The riad worker who accompanied us suggested we stop and wait. Making the purchase on our behalf saved us over half price. He explained that a Moroccan will pay much less than a European.
Next stop was the public hammam. Without our guide, we never would have found it as it was just another unmarked doorway in the maze of narrow alleyways that make up the old medina. Our guide negotiated a price. It was the time of day allocated for women only, so he left us at the doorway. Security seemed tight.
Luxury aside, we wanted the authentic hammam experience, and we were about to get it. A woman in a long robe and a hijab led us to into a changing area. Using hand signals, she instructed us to strip to our panties. I am not sure what I expected, but I was surprised to see her undress as well.
The bathing room is a large tiled space occupied by several groups of women and children (boys up to about age 6). They were all talking, laughing and scrubbing each other. Our room was steamy, but not unbearable. A second tiled room, with extreme heat, is for adults only.
We settled into an alcove at the side of the main room. The nakedness in this otherwise conservative country seemed normal. The locals scrub each other; we had this woman to do us.
She instructed us to sit on the floor, by pointing and gently pushing down on our shoulders. She filled a bucket with warm water, used a scoop, and pour it over our shoulders. So far, so good.
Next, I lay on a pad she had placed on the ground, and she covered me with the goopy black soap we had purchased. Then she did each of the girls. The experience was soothing and relaxing, despite the inherent awkwardness of a room full of undressed women.
It was time for my traditional scrub. The brochure for the tourist hammam experience had described it as a relaxing “massage”, and I was looking forward to it. Let me assure you; there was no relaxing in my future. She began at my shoulders scrubbing with what felt like a steel wool mitt. I looked at my girl sitting there undressed wondering what I had gotten them into and the only thing I could think to say was, “Save yourself, run away now, hurry.”
She scrubbed my entire body, every inch removing piles of dead skin. I glowed (this would be their words, mine would be a bit harsher). Fortunately, there was a more gentle version for the girls.
Next, and quite unexpectedly, she poured a bucket of hot water over me. My overly sensitive newly scrubbed skin couldn’t take it, and I instinctively pushed my body away. The wet floor caused me to slide across the tiles, all the while screaming “OMG HOT, $#%^, #@*&, HOT, AAAHHHH.” But that wasn’t the worst of it. It was what came next. After I had screamed from the heat, she tried to cool me down with cold water – and not just one bucket, two in a row. Needless to say, that resulted in more screaming from me, and I am pretty sure laughter from everyone else in the room.
Finally, it was over.
We were soft, clean, and glowing.
Obviously no photos inside hammam. Outside, around back, we can see the fire used to heat the water and make the steam.
If you are headed to the Fes or anywhere in Morocco, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Morocco Travel Guide.
Have you had a hammam experience?
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