In the bustling city of Fez there lies an oasis from the medina madness and probably the most heavenly place I've ever had the pleasure of resting my weary travel bones. In fact, I created a separate post all about Riad Laaroussa in my list of A Thousand Places and would fly all the way back to Morocco just to stay there again. As part of a very long restoration of the entire property, a room close to the entrance foyer was discovered and owners Fred and Cathy spared no expense at saving the once crumbling Hammam. Intrigued, we decided our visit to Morocco or The Riad Laaroussa would not be complete until we had experienced this ancient ritual for ourselves so without much hesitation, my friend Diana and I made a reservation for what would be a lesson in grace, dignity and pain management.
Let me say first before I go on that I have never been to a Hammam in the past so I can only speak to my experience at this particular one. I will also give a brief mention that I am happy and would recommend to anyone else from Western Civilization that I had enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine prior to my appointment--it not only dulled the discomfort a bit but I was a little less inhibited which you will soon understand is a good thing. Upon entering the facility we were instructed to strip down to nothing and were led into the heart of the hammam - the steam room. At first glance, I thought it was stunning - a circular room with a beautiful domed ceiling and a gray and black marbled bench surrounding the room. I noticed through the heavy steam what appeared to be a small well with a wooden bucket hanging over it and one small window cracked open just a bit and located high on the wall. We were motioned to lie down on the warm, wet marble and the attendants left the room.
At first, and for about 20-30 minutes after (I don't know because I lost all concept of time) I was enjoying the warm steam and total relaxation. But my tranquility soon turned to panic when I began to wonder and worry about how much time had actually passed and if anyone was coming back or if we had been forgotten. Maybe the gals had gone to lunch or even home for the day. It was then that I started plotting my escape or call for help from the small window just out of reach. Not wanting to disturb my friend who was lying literally inches away, I lie there for just a few more sweaty moments. Just as I had decided to share my fears with her about how long we had been lying there, how much she thought a person could sweat before passing out, and finally our plan for escape, the faint shadow of two sturdy women appeared through the heavy steam. Each was wearing a crisp gray uniform and white apron. To that ensemble, they added a kees (a traditional Moroccan loofah) to one hand and we were motioned (and by motioned, I mean a pretty heavy slap on the rear) to roll over. They began the first step of the hammam process which is the washing with traditional black soap or Savon Noir.
Photo courtesy of Riad Laaroussa
Tools of the trade include the exfoliating mit or kees and the black soap or Savon Noir. The soap is wonderful with a texture of butter and made from a mixture of crushed black olives and oil and soaked in salt and potash. It is meant to prepare the skin for exfoliation.
I was really looking forward to this part of the service as I've enjoyed salt scrubs at spas across the United States. However, the term scrub here was an understatement. I was thinking more along the lines of a light exfoliation but after being "scrubbed" for about a half an hour by a somewhat manly woman wearing a hand mitt covered in what felt like steel wool, I was sure that I had not much skin left and that parts of my body were actually bleeding. In fact, at one point, the attendant showed me the once maroon mitt now white with dead skin like a medal of honor as if she was proud of how much she had removed---to this date, I still have that visual in my head. When I thought the pain couldn't get much worse, she walked over to the well I had seen and began filling the wooden bucket with hot water and throwing it at me with such force that I lost a contact lens (which would actually prove to be a blessing later on). With little skin left, the hot water felt a bit like salt in an open wound and each bucket full was torture. I believe at some point I may have blacked out for a few minutes but was startled back to reality by another slap to turn over so she could begin the whole process on my front side. To get through the ordeal, I just kept thinking of how beautiful my new fresh glowing pink skin would look and hoping a bit that along with all that dead skin she had magically rubbed away my cellulite as well.
What Happens at the Hamman Stays At The Hammam
(unless, of course, you have a travel blog)
After the scrub and wash we were led into a small candle-lit relaxation room with one single couch. We were instructed to sit and the attendants brought us a beautiful pot of mint tea and some light snacks and then left again. While the picture of this may sound wonderful, this is where the lesson in grace and dignity came in because we were still buck naked. Now I'm not that modest but I have to tell you that it's just a little bit uncomfortable sitting on a couch with your best friend eating nuts and olives and drinking tea while wearing absolutely nothing but your freshly cleaned birthday suit. What do you talk about? We whispered and giggled a little like school girls, speculated how many foreign butts had touched the couch, and both apologized for having to witness the intimate knowledge of each others bodies while nervously nibbling and sipping hoping the time would pass quickly. I'm not going to lie, I was also a bit grateful that I had only one contact lens left leaving everything in the room a bit out of focus and the memory a blur.
Massage Room (photo courtesy of Riad Laaroussa)
The final step in the Hamman process was the massage. Again, we were led together into yet another candle-lit room with two massage beds. The forty minute massage that followed was a wonderful end to the treatment albeit not like any massage I've ever experienced. With Moroccan music quietly playing in the background and the lovely scent of orange-blossom essential oil filling the room, every inch of my body was massaged with what seemed like an emphasis on my breasts. I wasn't aware that breasts held any tension but based on the amount of time the therapist spent massaging mine, I believe she felt otherwise and that I was carrying all my stress there. After the roughness of the scrubbing, I was anticipating a pretty painful massage but was pleasantly surprised at the tenderness and gentle touch.
All of this being said and all teasing aside, the hammam experience left my skin feeling as soft as the day I was born and my muscles relaxed and like jello. That night I also slept like a baby between the luxurious sheets of Riad Laaroussa. And, despite the initial discomfort, it ended on a most wonderful note and I'd encourage anyone traveling to Morocco to indulge in this ancient ritual at least once. After all, isn't this what traveling to other parts of the world is all about....the culture, the adventure, the madness, the unknown. Moments of feeling so uncomfortable, totally unfamiliar and outside of your comfort zone that you have to pinch yourself to make sure you are really there. Those are the moments I live for! Have you ever experienced an ancient ritual or custom, pleasant or otherwise? I'd love to hear about it.