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Monday, 3 February 2014

Mix Turkish Baths and Hammam - Part 3

Mix Turkish Baths and Hammam: in which I tell you about visiting a Turkish bath near Ephesus and my 1st time in a Hammam in Marrakesh (part 3)

Hammans in Africa

Let’s jump ahead a few years when I was visiting Morocco for the 1st time. After having spent and experienced the in-house SPA of my hotel complex in Agadir, I arrived in Marrakesh. As my hotel didn’t have any of the facilities I had chosen it for (spa, entertainment), I spent as much time away as possible from it and this included taking the baths – or hamman – elsewhere.

If you have been to Marrakesh before, you’ll know that once in the Medina (old town) – and in most touristy places – you get handed out lots of leaflets for hammans. You have to be very discerning and, in my case, I wanted a place with character and not too touristy (although the latter is debateable) … so after nearly a week walking the streets of Marrakesh I came upon the Hammam Ziani.

During my most recent visit to Marrakesh I was told this Hammam is one of the oldest in town and it dates back to the xiv century. Although quite different from the Turkish baths in Istanbul, the Zian is also quite interesting. The inner area is not as grandiose or as big as the one in Istanbul – this is almost like an igloo, or better, a quarter size sphere just like the old roman ones.

They have light coming down from the vault via round holes filled with glass and all around the walls, water faucets fill concave capitels. There is something almost surreal for relaxing and taking the ‘baths’ in an environment full of history – at least for me!

Hammam Bab Daukkala

On another visit to Marrakesh I tried another Hammam: the Hammam Bab Daukkala which I found mentioned in the Lonely Planet pocket guide to Marrakesh. It seems this Hammam dates back to the 17th C.
This hammam is also in the  Medina – however in a less touristy area – and its entrance is just behind the Bab Daukkala Mosque (unfortunately non-Muslims are not allowed into mosques in Morocco nor Tunisia. Whilst it is possible in Turkey wearing adequate clothing).

Entrance to the Bab Daukkala hamman

The entrance to this hammam was nothing special and it was clearly used by locals, which were entering with buckets or washing up bowls, filled with towel, shampoos, etc.  I entered and paid the fee and was sent down a very dark corridor, which, after a sharp bend, took me to a large room full of semi naked women.
The room I entered was part of the changing room and it has a vault made of cedar-wood – beautiful and breath-taking, especially when sunlight filters through the star shaped openings in the dome. The inner rooms were once again vaulted in stone or stucco and had columns and capitels to which women, young girls & children leaned against while waiting for the ‘gommage’ (body scrub) or resting.  It had a very nice atmosphere and very matter of fact.

View of the Vault inside the hamman

When I got to the hamman I was not aware that it was a local place and therefore not equipped for tourists arriving and asking to be treated. As it was, I arrived to the Bab Daukkala Hammam hours after having landed from my flight from London/UK; and there I was with my flip flops and bottom part of a bikini and nothing else!! I had even forgotten my hairbrush! :-) In my elementary French I tried to explain my guide book said this was a place where I could get a gommage.

Around the periphery of the changing room were a few older local women, they seemed the one in charge and after a bit of surprise at my request and laughs, one of the women agreed to give me a gommage and massage and we agreed a fee. The chief older woman, sitting on the floor by the entrance to the changing room (she was like an old grandma), decided she will look after my handbag and so, after changing and with my belongings in her care, I entered the steam and hot rooms.

Inside the inner part of the Hamman 

These rooms – three of them all connected with each other – were vaulted and had columns ending with ornate capitels and marble decorated tubs collecting water from the taps. The 1st room had lots of mothers and daughters soaping up and scrubbing (gommage) young girls and little boys. There was laughter and cries of children playing or not wanting to be washed, all under the same roof in the same room.

When I finally emerged from my treatments, I was relaxed and scrubbed off of all the fatigue and dust from my journey earlier that morning.
Back in the changing room – no towel (they were not equipped for the public), no hairbrush... so I patted myself ‘dry’ with a few paper tissues and got dressed. As I did so, the chief women set up for their dinner and opened fragrant dishes of chicken and other food – and bless them they even offered me to join them! I thanked them profusely and declined – I only had my lunch an hour or so before… I found these women so nice and sweet. I would have loved to have a chat with them, however with my pigeon French and their main language being Berber, it was rather difficult.
Nevertheless the experience set the tune for my 2nd visit to Marrakesh and I left with a big smile on my face, with dripping and tangled hair in the warm December afternoon sun. What a difference from the -3C. I left in Gatwick earlier that morning!!

Hamman in Tunisia 

And what a difference my first - and probably last experience - of a hammam in Tunisia a few summers ago!
I was staying in Hammamet (which means the town of the Hammam, or so I was told) and I decided to try a real Tunisian Hammam.  After a few enquiries my Thomas Cook rep suggested a place which was situated not far from my hotel. Luck wanted that the day I visited I happened to arrive soon after a large contingent of French women from the hotel next to mine and therefore the Hammam was filled with lots of noise, prudery and queues… As usual the establishment had an entrance for women and a separate one for men. Although not equipped for the public (i.e. tourists) at this Hammam they were happy to yank up the price and take our money (typical attitude in all Tunisian places I visited).

This Hammam had been arranged on the ground floor of a block of apartment’s flats. Tiled with colourful tiles in the changing room and nothing else. Basic stuff in a modern surrounding, rather disappointing.
The treatments were also pretty disappointing, in fact rather painful.  The scrubbing was so vigorous that my arms and legs – which had been slowly kissed by the sun in the previous days sunbathing – the skin was so vigorously scrubbed to the point of rendering the already tender skin very raw and scratched! Ouch... Nothing of the nice feeling of soft clean skin after the Turkish or Moroccan baths experiences… rather the opposite…My skin – whatever left of it – was clean, unfortunately too much of it had been scrubbed off and it had gone past softness as more like very tender!

Back to the hammans I like most...

... and to the XIV century Hammam Ziani in Marrakech, only a few steps away from the Bahia Palace and well equipped to receiving tourists and wealthy locals alike. From the point of view of comfort this is probably my favourite, however the Turkish baths in Istanbul were much more attractive with their antique features in the hot room… And the hamman in Bab Doukkala is certainly the most colourful for the local folklore which I have visited.

What I like about going back to foreign places I have visited before is that I have my favourite spots – often not well known to the masses of tourists – where I can go and enjoy local culture mixed with some well deserved TLC!
Read also my other blogs on Roman baths and hammans…

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