Taking a hammam, also referred to as a Turkish bath, was an option on my trip to Morocco. It sounded mysterious, odd and scary in all best ways that a traveler desires – a traditional aspect of daily life, a unique social experience, and a step into the unknown that brings both fear and a desire to experience it. Count me in! There was just one problem – a hammam is essentially a public bath. That means being nude around other people.
Surprising myself, I was ok with the actual nudity. I have come a looooong way when it comes to body acceptance. But the thought of being subjected to comments and ridicule by the locals was enough to make me not want to do it. See, I had miserable massage experience in Nepal. I was mocked and ridiculed by the masseuse, and so was the other plus-size woman in our group. These people knew very little English but somehow “sooo big!” made it into their lexicon. It’s difficult to relax when someone is snickering about you in the process.
So I was worried about the hammam. I wanted to try it but wasn’t looking to be treated like that again. Luckily, I follow an amazing Facebook group called Fat Girls Traveling, where women can post questions, get suggestions and share experiences. I had no idea just how many other people were dealing with similar travel anxieties. The amazing ladies in the group assured me that the hammam would be fine and I believed them.
Our hotel in Fes offered a hammam experience and they allowed us to peak into the spa area when we checked in so that we had an idea what we were getting ourselves into. The spa area itself is lovely, a minimalist white and grey marble that looked spectacularly clean. It included a sauna, several washing areas, a jacuzzi, and two slabs to lay on. I couldn’t take pictures obviously, but this web site’s photo gallery of the hotel shows some of the hammam. https://www.cybevasion.fr/hotel-mounia-fes-h1410194_en.html
There were about 6 of us who did it at once, some from my group and some from another tour staying at the same hotel. There was a changing area where we left our clothes on hooks – super safe as the spa door wasn’t accessible by other hotel guests. I suppose this is an advantage compared to a more public hammam where I’d have been nervous about that the whole time. They gave us these little disposable underwear that were literally string and paper and the darn thing snapped as I brought it over my hips. No bother, I just put my ex-officio underwear back on, which also serve as fine swim bottoms in a pinch.
There was about 5 minutes where we were all feeling weird – exposed and vulnerable and cautious. We were a variety of ages and shapes and we were all feeling exactly the same way. After a few uncomfortable minutes, we were mostly over it.
First, I was brought to a stool in front of a fountain- type basin. I simply sat as the woman (I don’t know what they are called but I will refer to her the Scrubber) poured water over me and then proceed to clean me with black soap. Black soap is a luxury item in Morocco, made from olive oil. It’s soft and rich and quite exquisite feeling, and removes not only any dirt, but any lingering feelings of discomfort as I eased fully into this bizarre experience.
Following the black soap bath, I was shown into a sauna with the other ladies. There were only two Scrubbers so we were on a rotation. I’m not usually a fan of heat and humidity, but the sauna was delightful – a moment to get grounded. Since several of us were in the sauna at once, we also chatted. For Moroccan women, hammams are a social place where they gather with other women. They don’t go out to bars or out to dinner together so this really is their special place. We simply chatted amongst ourselves as travelers, sharing stories of where we’d been and where we were going.
When it was my turn, I left the steamy confines of the sauna and laid out on a marble slab. The Scrubber used two big mitts to scrub and exfoliate, I do mean scrub! Our guide in Fes earlier in the day joked that they would scrub dirt off of us from 1996 and he wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t quite at the brink of painful, but close. When it’s time to turn over, there is a metal bar toward the head of the slab – very useful to hold onto! Literally the entire place is soaking wet.
Following the vigorous scrub down, I went into a jacuzzi. It wasn’t hot but was a comfortable temperature. Something about the changing of body temperature through the sauna, then the jacuzzi then the sauna again is supposed to be good for me but I can’t recall why.
After several minutes in the jacuzzi, it’s back on the marble slab for some moisturizing lotion, which felt oily. Then back to the fountain-basin for a final wash and into an actual shower stall for a final rinse. They provided towels and I changed back into my clothes. The entire experience was relaxing, an opportunity to get to know other travelers, and my skin felt truly amazing afterwards!
The whole thing took about two hours only because we were all together on a rotation. The Lady Scrubbers seemed completely indifferent to our bodies – no shaming, no weird looks, nothing. I’m sure that the hotel experience was lacking in authenticity somewhat, and I enjoyed it enough to potentially try a local bath house when I return to Northern Africa next month.