Marrakech is a city that jolts awake all of your senses. If you've never visited this part of the world before, delving into the Medina for the first time is both exhilarating and daunting. You'll see, hear, smell, and taste things that you'll either really love, or really hate, but you will most definitely never forget! And you'll feel very much alive.
At the face of Marrakech's four kilometre wide labyrinth of a Medina, is a large, dusty, open square called Jemaa el-Fnaa. Between the clouds of smoke, drummers, and merchants calling out from their stalls, you'll find snake charmers, monkeys in costume, acrobats, dancers and flocks of people (mostly men) transfixed by traditional story-tellers - an ancient custom that's been kept alive in this square.
Be careful taking photos of anyone or anything in this whole area because you'll likely be asked to pay. It's best to ask first and many will happily oblige (or at least quote a price).
You'll find all types of trinkets, treasures and services in the Medina. You can even find spare teeth for sale! Full laundry services in the Medina are a tiny fraction of what you'd pay at your accommodation. The only problem is you've got to remember exactly where to go to pick it up the next day. The narrow pathways twist around each other haphazardly and, in the scorching desert heat, can get incredibly confusing.
If you get lost in the Medina (happens to everyone!), there will always be someone around to point you in the right direction, but do be wary of those offering to be your 'guide'. Some dodgy 'guides' get commission from leading tourists to certain stalls, sometimes in the complete opposite direction of where they'd like to go! Other times the tourist might be forced to pay an unfair amount for being shown where to go. If you're not confident, it's best to organise an official guide before you go, your accommodation should be able to help.
Make sure that you bring your A game if you're keen to shop. Merchants at the Medina are ruthless at hiking prices up for tourists so DON'T BE SHY when it comes to haggling. Take it from one who's learnt from the best (Malaysian grandmothers have no shame when it comes to market tactics) you should walk-away at least once... maybe two or even three times and eventually, they will bring the price right down.
As a rough guide, you should be able bring them down to just 20 - 30% of what they initially offer. It's such a thrill, for both you and the merchant when you finally agree on a price. They LOVE the banter - the cheekier you are the better. Throw in a few local Darija phrases with a big smile and you're good as gold.
- Salam alekum = hello / peace be with you
- La shoukran = no thank you
- Shoukran bezaf = thank you very much
- Ralli bezaf = too expensive
- Hafak = please
- Wakha / inshallah = OK / God willing
After a couple of days wandering the Medina, we were absolutely exhausted and in serious needs of some relaxation. A hammam was the obvious choice. We decided on a 'Heritage Romance' package at Heritage Spa as it ranks really well on TripAdvisor and the price seemed reasonable at 1700dh (approx. US$170) for two and a half hours of pampering for the both of us.
Although motorbikes and donkey carts hoon through the narrow passageways of the Medina, they're not meant for cars, so the taxi will drop you just outside the Medina and you will have to walk a couple hundred metres to get to Heritage Spa. A taxi from Menara Mall will costs about 30MAD so it shouldn't be anymore than 50MAD from wherever you're staying. Set the price BEFORE you get in.
Entering the hammam from the Medina is like discovering an oasis. The sound of trickling water, exotic perfumed air and soft lighting is enchanting.
We were warmly welcomed by girls who explained the entire process to us as we sipped on mint tea, surrounded by cushions and little samples of what was going to be used during the hammam.
You have a choice of the following:
- Savon noir (traditional Moroccan hammam black soap): argan and orange oil or olive and eucalyptus oil
- Massage oil: orange blossom, amber and musk, rose and sandalwood (most popular choice for females), patchouli or verbena (most popular choice for males)
After this intro, you head up to the changing room. There are individual lockers for everyone. You're given a robe and pair of slippers and men are given a pair of disposable trunks and women are given a disposable g-string - not much more than a couple of bits of dental floss! I noticed there was a basket in the changing room containing some more substantial pink disposable undies so if you're a bit self-conscious, help yourself.
Next was the actual hammam itself - a truly an unforgettable experience and the highlight of Marrakech for both of us! Two ladies led us to a small, warm and steamy, tiled room, a bit like a sauna where we were asked to undress.
It was so, so bizarre taking my robe off and equally strange watching Matt take his off in front of other people. Somehow being in that little room front of other people made me feel a million times more naked - but we weren't even naked! We still had our little disposable bottoms on of course. Mine were so scant however that they were pretty much redundant.
You'll then be rinsed all over while lying on the warmed tile benches, flopping from your front to your back. I felt a bit like a beached whale - extremely awkward at this point - mind racing a million times an hour and wondering how I was going to get through the next two and a half hours. I was too afraid to turn and look at Matt's face in case he was feeling as self conscious as I was.
After the rinsing, as soon as my attendant placed her hands on me to start the proper wash, I felt instantly at ease and happy to see Matt was loving it! My attendant had an affirmative and calming touch. It felt motherly. As obvious as it seems, it was only then I realised these ladies do this day in day out - they'd well and truly seen it all before, so there was no need whatsoever to have self-conscious thoughts. From then on, I totally let go of all inhibitions and just went with it, and it was fabulous! All four of us were chatting and laughing away in that little room.
First the savon noir is massaged into wet skin for about ten minutes. It's luxuriously buttery and the massage is meant to stimulate circulation. The ladies then leave you to 'marinate' in the soap, lying down in the steamy chamber for about 10 - 15 minutes. You're left with a bottle of water. It was then that Matt and I got to laugh out loud and debrief about the situation and we felt even more relaxed.
The ladies returned to wash off the soap and then scrubbed every inch of our bodies from top to toe nails with exfoliating gloves. It's a pretty vigorous scrub but feels amazing - you can tell that you'll end up being cleaner than you've ever been before.
At one point Matt was covered in dark grey clumps. I was like, hold on, is he getting the clay already? The ladies giggled, no that's his dead skin! Well, he could kiss his hard-earned tan away but clearly the boy was in desperate need of a good scrub wowee! The ladies also wash your hair.
Next you're covered in Rhassoul which is a natural clay high in minerals from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Since the eighth century, it's been mixed with water by North African women to cleanse, detoxify, nourish and balance the skin and hair. You're left to 'bake' in the clay for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Finally we were rinsed off for the last time, wrapped snuggly into our white robes and slippers, and ushered into a gorgeous room styled like a tent in the desert; complete with Moroccan cushions, rugs and lamps.
My skin tingled with cleanliness and felt smoother than a baby's bottom. We were given the exfoliating gloves to take home as a souvenir. I thought about the scary amount of skin that Matt shed and made a mental note to throw his glove away as soon as I could, ha! You're served more mint tea, water and almond cookies. Pure bliss...
It's then time to be massaged with your chosen scented argan oil. I chose orange blossom and Matt had verbena. With the romance package, you also get the choice of a facial or a foot massage, so I had the facial and Matt took the foot massage. I couldn't tell you how many wonderful products were used in my facial but it was honestly one of the best I've ever had.
When it was all over, we were so well-pampered and relaxed, we really didn't want to leave! The girls gave us each a delicious smelling soap as another little souvenir. You emerge feeling brand new - a more beautiful version of yourself with skin and hair aglow with indulgent oils.
While this particular hammam isn't exactly traditional (traditional hammams are public bath houses where people wash and scrub each other), it was certainly a fabulous treat and definitely worth doing while in Marrakech. Trust me, after the Medina, you're gonna need it!
Have you ever been to Marrakech or experienced a hammam? How was it? What are your tips for first timers to Marrakech or those wanting to try a hammam?
[ Heritage Spa: 10am to 8pm | 40, Arset Aouzal - Bab Doukkala, Marrakech | +212 (0) 5 24 38 43 33 / +212 (0) 6 61 17 94 17 | firstname.lastname@example.org ]