Morocco Part 1: Hammam with a friend in Marrakech
Winding through the medina it’s easy to get lost. Pass the fruit market. Step over the offal in the meat market. Turn at the drying leather. Ignore the hawkers. Duck under the tassels. Have we seen that arrangement of scarves before? Don’t look – there’s cobras ahead. Smell the jasmine. Dusty toes. Sun-kissed skin. Are we there yet?
Laying on a hot marble slab, roasting our skin off, while wearing weird paper underwear, I’m worried that Angela might not be loving this as much as I am. Between the rushing sounds of water, and the black argan oil soap that has been delicately painted on my face but is now dripping down dangerously close to my eyes, it’s impossible to communicate with her.
For a few days before Christine arrived, I had time with my dear friend, who I hadn’t seen in almost a year. Before my move to The Netherlands, we were neighbors, carpoolers, and colleagues – she was my first friend in Doha. So I missed seeing her face. When she strolled into the Riad, laughing, I remembered – she’s what friendship looks like. Not only were we on an adventure, but I was getting to take Angela to her first hammam – in Marrakech! What could be more perfect for a first experience?
Our Riad owner suggested we try Assal Hammam, assuring me that they would adjust the scrubbing levels for us – softer for her first time, and 60 grit for me. The biggest concern was Angela’s hair, but we worked that out, and the women were very conscientious about wrapping it with towels, and keeping the water off her head. I have to admit I was nervous about sharing something I love so much with someone who might not like the experience. How wrong I was.
From the outside, like much of the city, you might have never known the care and beauty you were about to experience. We had the whole place seemingly to ourselves, including the minuscule changing room that definitely didn’t fit two people. I forgot how hot those marble slabs can get – it’s been a while since I laid on one.
After the scrub and bath we were greeted with tea and brioutes, and then were whisked away to separate massage rooms. The key to a good treatment here in Morocco, if you don’t speak Arabic or French, is mastering the words “relax” or “strong.” Those two little words are good for a lot. In the end, Angela said she’s going to do hammams again. Seeing all that dead skin come off, plus the soaps, and massages, and total pampering…
Each hammam or bath house here will have different expectations. Just ask. Assal provided everything we needed, including lockers for our purses and phones.
Confirm your prices before you start – there will be a menu of services, and make sure you have clearly communicated exactly what you want, and how much it will cost before you head upstairs.
Tips are commonly expected, 10% is pretty standard, 20% if you really enjoyed or appreciated a service. This is true for most everything in Morocco – hotels, tours, drivers, and yes, hammam attendants.
While in the Marrakech Medina, get a paper map, and if you need to use your phone, download Maps.me – it actually works inside the old city unlike Google. There are often delays, or hangups – you might think you’re lost, but you’ll get it. What you don’t want to do is let a helpful boy lead you through the town. As soon as you look lost, you’ll get swarmed by people trying to “help” you. Keep looking up for the blue and green signs: Jemaa el Fna is the main square, and that can really keep you oriented in the maze of the Medina. Another best bet is just to have your accommodation pick you up from the airport, it can be quite tricky to get an actual cab, plus you’ll need help navigating to get from a taxi drop off point to your rooms.
Try staying in a Riad, at least for a night. Riad is Arabic for garden, and a key feature is the open air garden with fountains that you’ll experience when you walk through the doors. Usually they only have a few rooms. We spent the first part of our trip at Riad Johara, and the last at Riad Nesma. Johara was beautifully decorated in the public spaces and the rooms, but was chaotic. Nesma was gorgeous in the public spaces, but the rooms were not, and it was run like a regular hotel, which was a plus.
Haggling – In the markets start low at 25-30% of the original price and don’t pay more than 50%. Hold your ground and be willing to walk away. Once you start leaving you’ll likely get your price. Be prepared to spend some time haggling for almost everything.
Le Jardin Secret – a beautifully restored Arabic Garden and estate. It is much smaller than the Majorelle, but that means fewer people, shorter lines, and a peaceful moment away from the crowds and rush of the medina. Plus they have a partially restored Hammam room!
Le Jardin – a wonderful terrasse restaurant. Catering to tourists, don’t expect authenticity, but the food is quite good, and they have sun hats if you don’t get a precious umbrella table.
La Terrasse de Espices – another tourist haunt, this one serves up live music and has a bar. Expect to be patted down with a metal detector before you walk in, and make reservations if you want to eat at peak times. Also, stick with the Moroccan food.
We’ll be writing about our Moroccan trip in several installments – Marrakech, Chefchaouen, Fes, and our cooking school day.