Marrakech: Day 5
by Céleste | March 14, 2015
This was the day we had all been waiting for: our trip to the hammam, a Moroccan spa and a great treat for which we were all excited.
A stop-off for breakfast at a Charlie Chaplin-themed restaurant, I wasn’t really happy because they had run out of viennoiserie (pain au chocolat and croissants). Instead, Vincent and I just ordered tartines and coffee. It was marginal.
Next, we stopped back at the Ensemble Artisanal. Honestly, looking back, I can’t remember why we stopped in, but I was glad. Vincent says it’s because we wanted water. We saw a stand run by two people with developmental disabilities, who were selling their handmade jewelry. Because I work with kids with developmental disabilities, I thought it would be a cool souvenir to have, so I bought a beautiful little turquoise bracelet, while Emilie bought a necklace. The women working there was so proud, and showed us a newspaper article written about her and her work.
We were supposed to meet our hammam contact Yassine outside of the Palais Bahia at 2:30, so we decided to visit the palace to pass the time. It was similar to the previous palace, but it had a nice relaxing garden right in the center.
The decor was similar, with tiles and beautiful colors. We saw the customary stray cats.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, however.
Hammam Rosa Bonheur
Finally, at 2:30, Yassine came to get us and took us to the Hammam. It was a complicated maze of alleyways to get there, so we were glad he picked us up at the palace. The door was sort of inconspicuous, so it makes sense that the staff goes to get the customers. We went inside a sweet-smelling, clean little parlor, decorated in the Moroccan style, and Yassine offered us mint tea and biscotti. We ate some while he explained the day to us. When we finished, he brought us into a massage room and gave us our robes, slippers, and thongs to put on. Yes, thongs.
Let me take a step back and briefly explain a traditional hammam, as I understand it. It was influenced by the Roman baths, which were then adopted as a way of cleanliness by the Arabs (Turkey also has hammams), partially just as a communal cleaning experience, and partially as part of the religious purification ritual. Traditionally, men and women would be separated and you would be completely naked in a hammam with others of your gender. It was a social experience. Now, because this hammam seemed to cater to mostly tourists, they don’t require the strict separation of men and women, which we were glad for, and they also didn’t have a large communal room; we were able to do the hammam together. Emilie didn’t feel comfortable being with Vincent and I (makes sense, we’re married), so she did the massage first, while we did the hammam.
So as I was saying, we went into the hammam with our robes, slippers, and Vincent and I had brought swim bottoms with, so we had those on instead. We went into the hammam with just our swim bottoms on, as the ladies took off our robes and slippers for us. At first, being a prudish American, I was a little unnerved by being in the hammam with almost no covering on. Vincent and I laid down on the hot hammam pads though, and I felt more comfortable. The women came in and poured hot water on our backs, and then scrubbed us with soaps. They used the traditional Moroccan black soap, made of argan oil. Then, they had us turn over (how embarrassing, at least at first) and they scrubbed our fronts. Yes, even the breasts. Somehow, after awhile, you sort of tell yourself “when in Rome,” and you think about how often they must do this, and it’s not so strange. It definitely takes a little while though.
Anyway, they came back in and doused us with water again, then scrubbed us hard — almost painfully — with hand loufas, which google tells me are called Kessa gloves. I looked at Vincent during this, and I could see what looked like pounds of dead skin coming off of him. They left again and let us sit in the steamy silence for another 5 minutes, then came in again and watered us down. They had us stand up and they poured buckets of water on our heads. Then, they pulled us out of the hammam, saying “madame” and “monsieur” (did I mention they only spoke French?) and they put our robes on us. The robes were so fluffy and thick that they dried us immediately just by putting them on. It was strange to have the women just guide us through everything. Vincent told me later that it was also a bit strange for him to have a woman doing his hammam, but it was still a good experience for us both.
When they brought us out of the hammam and wrapped us in our robes, they also handed us thongs again. Yes, we would have to suck it up and wear the tiny things for the massage. It was strange and embarrassing, but it was okay. We went back upstairs to the massage room and laid down on our stomachs. The women began to massage us with verbeina oil, working over each individual body part with care. They started with our legs and buttocks. Yes, this was strange, as they were literally massaging our asses, with only a little paper thong to hide our shame. The women seemed to have done this a million times though, so I didn’t question it. I’ve had massages in the United States, and the masseur I had was definitely very aware of only having the portion of my body that he was massaging outside of the blanket. At the hammam, they covered either the top of the body or the bottom, and they mostly did not care about whether we were covered.
They eventually massaged both legs and buttocks, arms, back, shoulders and neck, stomach, chest, and breasts (again, strange in the US but normal for them). They let us sit in dimly lit silence for about 10 minutes. I felt my arms and side, and my whole body was completely oiled up. It was a strange feeling but my skin felt great. The massage was a total of 75 minutes, and it was so relaxing. I didn’t fall asleep, which I think was because of the novelty of the experience and the awkwardness of some of the massaging. But my body felt great afterward.
Next was the facial. The women covered our faces with a mask, let it sit, then washed it off. They repeated this twice more with two other masks/oils. It felt great. I looked at Vincent a few times during the massage and facial, and saw that he had his eyes closed the entire time. This was his first massage ever, and I think he really enjoyed how relaxing it was. I know I did.
The massage, hammam, and facial were over. Now it was time to eat. It was about 6pm when we finished, so we had all worked up a great appetite and thirst. The meal consisted of 5 courses and we had it on the roof of the riad that housed the hammam.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan home with an inner courtyard. Vincent says the courtyards are similiar in Pakistan, but that the layout of the house is quite different. As we ate, a cat came to check out our meal. It was getting dark, so he just watched us and didn’t jump down onto the terrace.
So the 5 courses are as follow: bread and harira (Moroccan soup), an aubergine spread (aubergine is French for eggplant, and this spread was at many of the restaurants we went to; we loved it each time), pastilla (the chicken and almond fried bread pocket), and chicken and lemon tagine.
We also had a bottle of red wine bottled in Marrakech (this was only 10 euros extra). For dessert, we had oranges topped with cinnamon, and then more mint tea and biscuits. Vincent loaded up on the biscuits because Yassine kept giving them to him. He couldn’t say no!
The hammam was over. We loved it, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone. It’s a challenge for an American, I think, because we have some cultural ideas about our bodies that the Moroccans don’t share, but it was such a great experience, not to be missed. The staff at Hammam Rosa Bonheur were fantastic and professional, and I would go to them again.
After the hammam, we decided to take a calèche ride back to our apartment. A calèche is a horse-drawn carriage, and they are everywhere in Marrakech. Emilie was hesitant, because many of the horses looked mistreated and malnourished. We walked down the line, looking for someone who would give us a deal. We finally found a man who said he would take us from Jemaa el Fnaa through the Kasbah and Hivernage and back to our apartment for a total of 200 dirhams ($20). I made sure he knew it was dirhams and not euros, and that it was total and not for each. Sometimes, the drivers will try to trap you into agreeing to a higher price and try to make you feel stupid for not understanding “what they actually meant.”
The driver started to drive us right back to our apartment and I said, “You told us we would do a bon tour!” (Did I mention the driver only spoke French?) He feigned misunderstanding what I had said, and said, “Oh, you want to do a tour!” even though HE was the one who originally proposed it! I was having none of it, however, and I was going to be strong and stand up to him, even though I was nervous. So I did!
I said, “We wanted to see the monuments and do a bon tour of the place.”
He said, “What monuments?!”
“I don’t know! You said we could do a tour!”
“I’ll take you to the Kasbah. I made a promise, I will do it.”
I think he knew I was on to him, because he did a U-turn with his carriage (I do not recommend this in Marrakech traffic) and headed to the Kasbah. We got to see the Bab Agnaou again, the ramparts, and the royal palace. He gave us information about each place and became a totally nice driver. He was actually really helpful and gave us lots of background information. He took us through the Hivernage neighborhood as well, and back to our apartment. We paid him the money and he let me take a photo of his horses. I was glad I challenged myself to use my French to not get taken advantage of.