This review of Hamam ben Azouz, a traditional Moroccan hammam in Chefchouen is part of the series 100 Baths, my search for the world’s best spas and public bathing rituals. Read more and see the list here!
“It’s a local experience.”
This is how my guide describes the Moroccan hammam in Chefchaouen he has arranged for me to visit. I can tell he’s making sure it’s actually what I’m looking for when I asked him to recommend a hammam treatment on our day off. It is!
When I travel, I want to eat local food, hear local music, to learn as much as possible about the people of a place, while at the same time, enjoying the famous sites that brought me there. It’s not always easy to get off the tourist trail, no matter how much I might consider myself a “traveller” … I’m still a foreigner. Especially rolling into the small mountain city of Chefchaouen for just two days as part of an organized tour. So I will take any hot tips from our guide on authentic local culture, especially my first traditional hammam experience.
This city is sometimes called Morocco’s “Blue Pearl,” for all of the buildings painted various shades of azure, indigo, lapis, sapphire, cobalt. The effect is fantastical, like being in a movie set. Or, to be more accurate, like being in an Instagram photo. Its famous blue doors make the perfect selfie backdrop, and flocks of pretty women are here, all wandering its narrow, twisting, Google Maps-defying streets.
But I’ve decided I want to spend my time in this beautiful place behind closed doors, in the company of local women, getting scrubbed clean.
A traditional Moroccan hammam is a bucket list for many visitors.
Much like a Turkish bath, the cleansing ritual comes with centuries of history dating back to the Roman and Ottoman empires, involving steaming, washing, exfoliation and massage. North Americans mostly know the fancy hammams found in in five-star hotels, with gleaming marble, fluffy robes, and spa services that leave you smelling like roses and orange blossoms.
But I want to learn what Moroccans know, what happens in the modest neighbourhood baths where the ritual of public bathing is part of daily life.
Our guide leads the way. We are six women now — five others from my tour group have decided to join. I’m on this tour solo, but most of them are travelling with husbands. I like this idea, leaving the men behind.
We must bring our own supplies. Stopping at a perfume shop, we watch our guide scoop thick black goop from a barrel into a plastic bag. I had seen this stuff around the markets, and thought it molasses, or some kind of honey. It’s in fact “black soap” (or savon beldi), the go-to hammam cleanser. It is made from olives. The bag is for the lot of us. We are each handed our own differently coloured kessa glove, for the scrubbing.
The hammam building itself is nondescript, a plain door with no sign. Inside, we find an empty change room, and a friendly welcome. The women who work here do not speak English. Or French. Or Spanish. (I tried all three!) Which made it challenging for the lady of the house to explain we should take our bathing suit tops off, but not the bottoms.
One of the first things I learned at the hammam was there’s a universal, rather frantic, hand gesture for “ladies, put your panties back on!” Everyone laughs. That’s universal too.
Standing around half-naked waiting for instructions, I realize this is not an experience I could have had in my twenties. Back then, the idea of being topless in front of strangers in another country would have been mortifying. But in my forties, I think nothing of it, having been naked in gym change rooms and other women-only spas enough times by now. Everyone’s boobs are different. Whatever.
We are led into one large tiled room that’s wet and hot. Thick steam clouds my vision but I can make out a few other women inside, crouched on the ground or sitting on plastic stools, washing. In the corner, a young girl is combing her hair.
It’s a very simple set up. No “exotic” Moroccan ornamentation, no seats or slabs. Just some taps where you can draw hot water into a plastic bucket. The floors are sloped, towards a drain. Our guide told us Hamam ben Azouz has been operating since 1947, but it’s quite easy to imagine this type of space being used for public bathing hundreds of years ago.
A woman appears, and points to the floor. She is older, and sturdy, and wearing only what at home we would call “granny panties.” She is also smiling, a bit devilishly I might say, as she directs us to sit down, cross-legged, in two rows facing each other, before disappearing back into the steam. I learn later that this is the part of hammam where you sit and wait. You wait for your skin to soften from the sweating. But we don’t know this yet. We stare at each other, shrugging. Now what?
There is some shouting in Moroccan Arabic, some hand clapping, and laughing and then….splash! She has tossed an entire bucket of hot water on me. I have a flashback to being knocked down by an ocean wave, as the water hits me straight in the face, and up my nose. I have to laugh.
Splash! More buckets of water are flung violently at the others. Everyone is laughing, none so much as the local women. They who pour their buckets over their own heads, gently. But this is a game we are playing now.
We are paying not only to get scrubbed, but to be entertained, and to entertain.
One by one, we are directed to lay down. I am flat on the tile floor, water flowing all around me. I am slathered with black soap, which turns translucent on my skin. It smells of olive oil, and the forest. My woman takes my mitt and gets to work. She scrubs my arms, without mercy. Dead skin flakes off in black beads, floats away towards the drain. My legs and abdomen get worked over. And then my breasts, without modesty. She is very thorough.
There’s a second woman working on us now, and a rotation system, sort of. Eventually, I am dragged upright, to get the soap off. Splash! Another bucket of water. My helper makes sure to pour some down my swimsuit bottoms, more than once. I’ve never had another person rinse my adult butt cheeks before.
After the exfoliation comes massage. Our group is part of a cycling tour, and we’ve been riding bikes now for a week, up and down the Moroccan mountains. My legs are definitely ready for a rub down. There is oil, and the lengthening of muscles, and the kneading of skin. I start to feel softer. I am still laying on the tile floor of a very hot steam room as my friends are scrubbed and rubbed in good time. It feels like forever before I get my final treatment: the shampoo.
It’s truly one of life’s pleasures to have someone else wash my hair.
I close my eyes and almost nod out, but then — surprise! — a bucket of water is poured unceremoniously over my head. I shriek with shock, and then laughter. The woman swiftly wraps my long hair atop my head. Now, I can relax.
Leaving the hammam, I’m not sure I’d call our group’s state of mind blissful. Some were amused, some confused. But I definitely felt very clean. And pleased that I shared the experience with these other women, something to bond over for the rest of the trip. I also liked the little things that I learned, like how Moroccans use all parts of the olive for all kinds of products. That mothers and daughters go to hammams together. That there’s no need to be shy about one’s body, at any age, or any size.
I can visit a fancy spa anytime, at home or in almost any city in the world. This is a ritual you can only find here.
Know Before You Go
Where? I’m afraid I can’t tell you exactly where this place is. It had a blue door. But every door is blue in Chefchaouen. Somewhere on one of those twisting streets, there is a public bathhouse called Hamam ben Azouz. Just ask around. It’s part of the local experience.
When: Co-ed hammams have separate men’s and women’s hours. Check ahead.
What To Bring: Swimsuit bottoms or underwear (plus a dry pair to put on after, they will get soaked); sandals or flip-flops, a towel, your own shampoo, black soap and mitt (easily purchased in the souks or drug stores), a backpack or other bag to store your clothing and personal items (no lockers, just a bag check type system). A good sense of humour and generous tip money. Leave cameras and valuables at home.
What it Cost: We paid our guide 200 MAD each. (About $28 Canadian.) This included arranging our appointment, entry fee, buying our soap and mitts, paying the staff who serviced us. DIY local style for about 20 MAD.
Want more spa inspiration? Lonely Planet’s Wellness Escapes is a lovely hardcover filled with eye candy photos of hot springs, saunas, spas and other wellness resorts from around the world. These are expensive and often remote destinations, but even if you never get there, you can use this as a starting point for researching dream trips.
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