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Hammam heaven in Marrakesh


“Et tu? Rien.” Excuse me? As I felt the tiny woman clad only in a swimsuit tugging at the strings of my bikini top, I questioned whether I had heard correctly. Wear nothing? Nothing at all? 

Standing nervously in the changing area of an upmarket hotel spa located just off the main city square in Marrakech, I was preparing to sample a Hammam, Moroccan style. I had heard that Hammams are widely located across the Islamic part of the Mediterranean, but that each country has its own unique perspective on the experience. I had read up in the guidebooks to try to find out exactly what I was letting myself in for, and from what I understood, the experience usually involved something along the lines of a Turkish bath in a room full of other women, (or men, always single sex).

The experience that I had just paid for allowed my husband and I to go in at the same time, just the two of us, and I had joked to him earlier that day that it sounded as if someone was going to come in the shower with us. Turns out, I wasn’t far wrong.  

Back in the changing room, I reluctantly conceded the top half but resolutely hung on to my bikini bottoms. The British are well known internationally as prudes, but I thought that walking around in the buff with a complete stranger when it wasn’t even dark was taking things a bit far. So, wearing only my bikini bottoms and a cautious smile, we were led into a steamy room and motioned to sit down on the stone floor. Our Hammam included a black soap and flannel scrub and full exfoliation, and one at a time, my husband and I were directed to sit in the middle of the floor in a shallow film of hot water. Every inch of my body was washed with the black soap before I had bucket after bucket of hot water thrown over me. One tip if you ever indulge in a Hammam is to always keep your mouth shut as you can never be entirely sure when the next bucket is being aimed at you, and a mouthful of hot water does tend to detract from the relaxing ambience.

After the full body wash, I lay on my front as the beauty therapist donned an abrasive looking glove and started to ‘exfoliate’ me. I am not sure if it was the novelty factor or my rather sensitive skin, but at this point, I was forced to ask for a slightly softer glove as the experience was coming uncomfortably close to the pleasure/pain barrier. After she had changed gloves, the experience went back to being relaxing, even thought the fact that I am extremely ticklish cause great amusement to everybody involved.

All in all, our Hammam lasted about an hour, and cost 125 Dirham each, about £8. As I put my clothes back on and negotiated the stairs back to street level, I felt fairly light- headed and a little bit intoxicated by all the pampering.

Jnane Mogador, the hotel where we experienced Hammam, is only a couple of minutes off the main square, in a narrow alley snaking away from the Medina. We had been advised that the best time of day to experience Hammam was in the evening to get maximum relaxation potential, and so we headed back in the direction of the noise to the main square of Jemaâ El Fna for some dinner.
Whatever your dining or shopping preference, Jemaâ El Fna caters for all. By day, the square hosts numerous entertainers and enterprising business people, all desperate to make their share from the tourist industry, from monkey handlers and snake charmers, to nomadic musicians in full ethnic dress, to full-veiled women desperate to henna your hand if you hesitate near them for long enough. They scatter themselves intermittently between the basket sellers, stray cats and small children trying to sell you cakes and sweets, and have a knack of getting you just when you thought you were safe.

As soon as the sun starts to go down, the animals, (apart from the stray cats,) and small children clear out and make way for food stalls selling everything from the familiar to things that I did not even recognise. As long as you put any health and safety concerns to one side, you can dine with the locals for what appeared to be local price. If you are rather more concerned about hygiene standards, it would probably be advisable to eat at one of the western-priced Italian, French or traditionally Moroccan eateries lining the square. Moroccan cuisine is based heavily around nuts, meat and of course, couscous, although most restaurants frequented by tourists across the price spectrum cater for vegetarians. All the traditional dishes such as Tagine and couscous have been altered to contain only vegetables, although it is worth inspecting your food closely before swallowing whole as I did come across falafel that had been stuffed with mince meat, even after I had clarified that the falafel was vegetarian!

Marrakech’s famed souks cannot be missed, and if you find yourself in Jemaâ El Fna in the late afternoon, this is one of the liveliest and most profitable times to shop. Alleys lead off Jemaâ El Fna in all directions and the best plan that I adopted was to choose an alley and follow it to see where I ended up. Attempting to follow a map is futile, and latching on to the nearest and biggest crowd is a fail-safe of eventually finding your way back to the big square if you do start to wonder where on earth you are. At the end of the day, many traders are more amenable to bargaining, although I noticed that certain shops were much more amenable whatever time of the day you visited. For instance, as we looked at a large, pottery and fish-skin Djembe drum, the seller bargained himself down from 1200 Dirham, (about £75), to 100 Dirham, (about £6), without us even saying a word. As we started to walk away, his price plummeted through the floor. We ended up settling on 150 Dirham which we considered a bargain. However, try the same tactic in the scarf and bag shops at your peril; it is my personal theory that there are enough tourists willing to pay the inflated price the sellers give at first and therefore the sellers are not willing to bargain. A standard price that I was quoted for a small ‘silk’ shoulder bag ranged from 200-400 Dirham, (£12-£24 pounds), and they generally look at you in disgust if you try to bargain at all. Considering the price of the Djembe, and the fact that all the shops carried the same stock, I would be willing to bet that many of them are made on a production line. Think long and hard before you buy if you object to being ripped off.

Last but not least, the new part of the city, Gueliz, is worth a look, even though the Medina and the souks is what most people come to Marrakech for. Leave the main square and head towards the Koutoubia Minaret, which is highly visible from most parts of the city. Standing in front of the Minaret, you will find yourself at the bottom of the main arterial road in Marrakech, Rue Mohammed V. Follow the road for about fifteen minutes away from the square, and  when you reach the wide open area of Place du 16 Novembre, you have found Gueliz. The change from the old city of the Medina to the new city of Gueliz is marked clearly by the McDonalds and ladies lingerie shops proudly nestling beneath the imposing sign of Islam, the Minaret. Gueliz is where most of the hotels are, and pretty much the only place in Marrakech where you can buy a beer. It is also often a lot cheaper to eat here as you are not paying for the view and atmosphere of Jemaâ El Fna, even though Gueliz has a lively evening atmosphere all of its own. If you find something you like in the souks, it may be worth having a look at some of the established shops lining Rue Mohammed V before you buy, they will often have fixed prices so you won’t end up paying the tourist price.

My final tip would be to keep your ear to the ground. Word has it that in insider travel circles, Marrakech is well on the road to becoming horribly commercialised. Looking at the credit cards welcome signs slowly appearing in the windows of the small permanent shops gradually appearing in the alleys, I would not be surprised if the face of the Medina is unrecognisable in a few years. With the low-cost European airlines opening their doors to Morocco, now might just be the best time to go!    
           
Information

The author experienced Hammam at: Jnane Mogador, 116, Road Zitoun Kedim, derb Sidi Bouloukat, Marrakech, Médina. Tel: +212 (0) 24426324. Tel/Fax: +212 (0) 24426323. Email: jnanemogador@hotmail.com. Web: www.jnanemogador.com
This hotel also offers a Salon de Thé and accommodation, but when I tried to book, they were booked up at least 8 months in advance!

The author stayed at the Hotel Imperial Holiday in Gueliz district, Marrakech.
http://www.hotel-imperialholiday-marrakech.com/english/default.htm

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