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What is a Hammam and why I decided to try one?

Introduction – What is a Hammam?

A Hammam (Turkish: hamamArabic الحمام, ḥammām) is a type of bathhouse. The basic purpose of a Hammam is to clean you up although it also highly focused on relaxation and comfort, including massages, full body scrubs and general socializing.

The more touristy versions are more expensive, have staff hired to take care of you, are generally more private, and function much more as a modern spa while the public ones are cheaper and there is very little staff – the visitors help each other. It’s the public type me and my friend Nikolaj visited on a visit to Tangier in Morocco.

Hammans can be found in several countries around the Mediterranean and have roots back to the Roman Tradition. There are many variations of this type of bathhouse and they can be found in countries such as Turkey (also known as Turkish bath), Egypt, Cyprus and Syria. One of the main differences between the Victorian Turkish Bath and the Islamic Hammam found in countries such as Morocco, is the water and air – in Turkey it’s dry air and the bather will typically plunge into a cold pool while in Morocco the air will be steamy and there will be no pool but instead cold water is poured on you (using buckets or the like).

So how did we get the idea of visiting a Hammam? Anyone that have read the Trans Siberian Railroad series here on this blog will know that my travel companion Nikolaj and I are quite the bathhouse lovers. In Russia they were called Banya’s and if you want to know their particular style, I’ve described one such Banya here. Obviously we wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to visit another bathhouse; although different, most likely just as pleasant. At the same time this post serves as encouragement anyone reading this to go and find the nearest Hammam and just get into it – it’s fantastic.

Bayt Alice hostel
View over Tangier from our rooftop terrace at the hostel

 

How to prepare and what to expect when going to a public Hammam

Going to a hotel Hammam or similar tourist/private Hammam is easy. Just bring your bathing clothes and some money – the rest is taken care of. Going to a public Hammam requires a small bit of preparation but is still quite manageable.

First problem is to find a local bathhouse and in our case we asked the hostess at our hostel where to go. Besides being convenient it also serves as atleast somewhat of a guarantee that we are not being cheated – she told us what prices to expect and where to go. In Russia we even had a local guy go with us – he overheard us talking about the Banya with the hostess and offered to join. Another opportunity would be to consult the internet which, however, typically has the (dis)advantage of taking you to the larger mainstream bathhouses.

You need a towel and bathing clothes. The locals typically have a body scrub glove, some soap and whatever they need to wash themselves. You can buy that at a market or usually you can just borrow it when you get there.

When inside you go through these phases

  • Change of clothes, payment to the front desk.
  • Warm room with warm water to get used to the heat. Here you do initial washing
  • Hot room with fairly hot water. You wash down completely in here
  • Cold room. This is where you finish before you exit
  • Change of clothes, tip any local staff that helped you
The tiles usually indicate an entrance
An entrance to a Hammam. It is typically recognizable by the colored (blue/green) and white tiles.

When you get there you have to make sure that it’s time for the men to use the Hammam. Under no circumstances do men and women bath at the same time, so if the front desk guy starts yelling at you when you walk in – it’s probably because you are there at the wrong time. I suggest you say sorry, look confused and point at the watch. With any luck he won’t get mad but instead manage to communicate to you when to come back.

When inside the Hammam

When inside, pay the man, and start changing clothes. Remember: NO full frontal nudity under any circumstances, so cover yourself up with a towel. When done, grab your towel (and scrub glove/soap whatever you have with you). We didn’t have anything but a towel and a local guy (staff) there helped us point to where to go and what to do so don’t worry if you are feeling confused 🙂

When we got in he washed the floor in a corner and pointed at it – he also filled a couple of buckets with warm water. We were supposed to sit down on the clean spot and do some initial washing. We used the buckets and washed ourselves (no soap as we didn’t have any) – without wasting too much water! Water can be sparse in Morocco so be mindful of not splashing around too much. After a while another guy came in and did the same. He asked us (without using words as we didn’t understand him) to wash him and Nikolaj used the locals own soap and body scrub glove to wash him down. In these Hammam’s it’s common to help each other and it is no way a sexual thing. It’s simply practical. Some people also ask or give massages. Don’t be surprised if they ask for you to return the favor or return the favor themselves.

This Hammam was small and few people were here, so the warm room and the hot room was the same. As we entered, the room wasn’t that hot but he turned up the heat and after a while buckets of steaming hot water was ready – slowly turning the warm room into a very hot room. An adjacent room that started out as a cold room became warm and late arrivals used that room as a warm room.

Warm room of the Hammam
In the beginning those buckets contained warm water, later it was hot

After a while the local staff guy that initially helped us in the beginning came back and, without word, started washing Nikolaj. With a confused look, I observed the ritual but when he was done with Nikolaj he started washing me down too. He scrubbed my back and front and soaped me in and then finally he rinsed off the soap using the buckets of water.

Hammam back bodyscrub
Getting bodyscrubbed on the back using a special bodyscrub glove

 

Hammam wellness
And the front…
Hammam rinse
Finally a rinse

When we were done our skins softer than they have been for a long long time and we changed into our normal clothes. The guy that washed us, made it very clear that we should tip him and so we did. We tipped 100 dirham between the two of us but I believe that is too much. None the less, about $9 for two full scrubs is not bad.

In conclusion: do it!

The last days in Morocco, the Hercules cave, Casabarata and a Hammam

Daytrip out of Tangier, Morocco

We got up in the morning and prepared for the day which involved going to a cave near the coast that apparently Hercules had slept in, the big market in Tangier called the casabarata where you “could get anything you wanted” and finally the local hammam (Moroccan bathhouse). Originally we had planned to go to Chefschaouen today but seeing as we got up too late we reasoned that a 2h drive each way would be too much.

The Hercules cave and a note about the croissant scale

We first had another lovely breakfast at the hostel with pancakes and freshly pressed orange juice, took a shower and headed out into the Medina. Some of the peddlers from the previous days recognized us and went “hey, danemaark!” but otherwise mostly left us alone. We then proceeded to grab a taxi and the price was a cool 100 dirham (about 9EUR) for the 30 min drive to the cave. Of course when we got there he wanted 50 more dirham because he took “the scenic route”. Sure. Have your 50 dirham my friend 🙂 50 dirham comes up to about 4,5EUR (1,5EUR for each of us). The cave wasn’t all that spectacular – it was a nice cave but to me it was way too artificial. Lots of lights and paved ground – I didn’t really get the feeling of being where Hercules had slept. Atleast it was free.

It's a straight drop down!
The cave wasn’t spectacular but the outside view was

The croissant scale

While on the topic of money we tried to get an idea of how much we were being ripped off. 50 MAD (Morrocan dirham) isn’t much to us but it is to a local. We saw vastly varying prices for things we would consider of equal value. One of the first things we bought was a croissant and it was only 2MAD. Using that as future reference we created something called the croissant scale. With the croissant scale in mind, the 50 extra MAD we gave him sums up to 25 croissants! We also created a tea scale which seemed to mostly correlate with the croissant scale – 6-8 MAD for a cup of tea is within reason. Of course sometimes we paid up towards 15 MAD for a tea which completely shattered the croissant scale!

Food ran to about 40 MAD for a meal and 25 MAD for shawarma styled fastfood. It seems croissants are cheap but since we got bread with everything we ordered (for free) I guess it’s just bakery goods (and tea) that come cheap.

Casabarata

As previously mentioned, Casabarata is a market in Tangier. The first thing we experienced was a local warning us to not show our money (which we did when we paid the taxi).The second was a bunch of dead chickens on the ground – except they weren’t dead which became apparent when one of them moved. Besides giving us a bit of a scare it also became obvious that animal welfare wasn’t a big thing here. These chickens were just lying on the ground, alive and bound. That’s one way to keep them fresh.

Live chickens
These chickens were alive

We walked around a bit more and found a nice little shop that sold Djellabas, a local type of clothes that the locals wear. It’s like a robe and instantly gives associations to Star Wars – either the Jedis or the sand scavengers(Jawas) combing Tatooine for droids. We each bought one which cleaned us out and with no money a market is less interesting so we soon headed home

Inside the Medina
On the rooftop of our hostel. I’m wearing a Djellaba, a type of robe the locals wear

Hammam – Moroccan style bathouse

I was traveling with two other friends and one of them, Nikolaj, was also the one i took the Trans Siberian Railroad with 1,5 years ago. We made it a thing to try the russian bathhouses (Banya) everywhere we went and why not continue that tradition in Morocco. Here they are called Hammams and are very different.

I’ve gone into detail Here but for now it suffices to say that I have never had such a soft skin and felt so clean as i did after this gem of an experience. Also, the fact that we didn’t speak the local languages (arabic, french or even spanish) didn’t make the experience any less exotic!

Getting bodyscrubbed using a special bodyscrub glove
Getting bodyscrubbed using a special bodyscrub glove

Conclusion on Morocco

This was the last evening in Morocco and the next morning we had decided to leave early to be able to make it to Madrid for new years eve.

All in all Africa has treated us well. The onslaught of peddlers that hit you when you first arrive can be very annoying to say the least but as you get settled in and have been there for a while you start to learn how to deal with them and you can start enjoying all the positive things that Tangier (and the rest of Africa) has to offer. As described to us by a local bartender, this is white Africa, and when you cross the Sahara you get into black Africa which is vastly different. Can’t wait to try that out someday!

A beautiful sunny day in Morocco
A beautiful sunny day in Morocco
The Djellaba was actually too warm!
All my bags are packed and we are ready to go. I’m wearing my Djellaba – mostly because it didn’t fit in my bag

Welcome to Africa, Tangier and Medina

First night in Tangier

At around 20:00 (8pm) we arrived at Tangier port. With a beatiful view to the oldest part of the town, Medina, and the walls surrounding it, we entered Africa. Immediately we were approached by a seemingly friendly guy that wanted to show us around and help us find a hostel or a place to stay. The prizes he quoted seemed reasonable compared to what we could find on the internet but as we didn’t want to book the first the best thing we got offered, we decided to say no. He then offered us to buy some hash instead which we also politely refused.

We walked for about 5 mins out of the harbor (about 5 guys asked us if we wanted a taxi) before another guy told us not to go the direction we were heading because it was dangerous. We decided to follow his advice and go another way. He followed us and started talking to us and of course he wanted to show us a hotel he knew (very good price – best price and good beds) – this guy, however, didn’t stop following us until we gave him some money. It turned out that this was neither the first nor the last time that “helpful” locals offered us their help. Later that evening after we had found a hostel we walked around the town for a bit and a guy offered to help us. A “no” and “please leave” didn’t deter him and after we told him more and more sternly to leave (and gave him some money) he left us with a “Fuck you!” as his last words. We then had a tea and pondered upon our recent experience.

For another hour we walked around Medina and looked at the people and the surroundings. This place is like taken directly out of a James Bond movie with extremely narrow streets and odd buildings. People hanging on every street corner and small shops selling all kinds of things and trinkets. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and something worth experiencing! It was very easy to get lost and we did so too a couple of times which resulted in us ending up in dead ends of various more or less illuminated alleys. Despite dark dead end alleys it all seemed safe though.

I could see James bond jumping between this buildings, chasing a perp
I could see James bond jumping between these buildings, chasing a perp

Second day in Tangier

We had a delicious breakfast at the hostel and ventured out. People kept approaching us to help but we got better at saying no right away. Telling them we knew what we wanted and where we were going helped, politeness and no thank you didn’t. We walked around and outside Medina to see if we could rent a scooter but with no luck.

Instead we got to see alot of the town and some nice views over the Mediterranean Sea and we found a local watering hole with a very (genuinely) friendly bartender who talked to us and explained things while we had a beer. He also kept bringing us tapas of various kinds, until we were completely full – for free! He was indeed very friendly and made me restore faith in people not wanting something for their help 🙂

We also had Flag and Stork beer
We had a local beer called Casablanca

He also told us where to get a Shisha and surprisingly we found the place about 10 mins away very easily.

The tea was very sweet!
Shisha and Tea

I am now back in the hostel and it was actually a very nice day. Tomorrow we plan on going to see Chefchaouen up in the nearby mountains which is apparently a very nice place with excellent views!