The absence of hot showers in some of the cheapest Medina hotels is not such a disaster. Throughout all the Medina quarters, you’ll find local hammams. A hammam is a Turkish-style steam bath, with a succession of rooms from cool to hot, and endless supplies of hot and cold water, which you fetch in buckets. The usual procedure is to find a piece of floor space in the hot room, surround it with as many buckets of water as you feel you need, and lie in the heat to sweat out the dirt from your pores before scrubbing it off. A plastic bowl is useful for scooping the water from the buckets to wash with. You can also order a massage, in which you will be allowed to sweat, pulled about a bit to relax your muscles, and then rigorously scrubbed with a rough flannel glove (kiis). Alternatively, buy a kiis and do it yourself. For many Moroccan women, who would not drink in a café or bar, the hammam is a social gathering place, in which tourists are made very welcome too. Indeed, hammams turn out to be a highlight for many women travellers, and an excellent way to make contact with Moroccan women.

Several hammams are detailed in the text, but the best way of finding one is always to ask at the hotel where you’re staying. You will often, in fact, need to be led to a hammam, since they are usually unmarked and can be hard to find. In some towns, you find a separate hammam for women and men; at others the same establishment offers different hours for each sex – usually mornings and evenings for men, afternoons (typically noon to 6pm) for women.

For both sexes, there’s more modesty than you might perhaps expect: it’s customary for men (always) and women (generally, though bare breasts are acceptable) to bathe in swimming costume (or underwear), and to undress facing the wall. Women may be also surprised to find their Moroccan counterparts completely shaven and may (in good humour) be offered this service; there’s no embarrassment in declining.

As part of the Islamic tradition of cleanliness and ablutions, hammams sometimes have a religious element, and non-Muslims may not be welcome (or allowed in) to those built alongside mosques, particularly on Thursday evenings, before the main weekly service on Friday. On the whole, though, there are no restrictions against Nisara (“Nazarenes”, or Christians).

Finally, don’t forget to bring soap and shampoo (though these are sometimes sold at hammams), and a towel (these are sometimes rented, but may not always be as clean as you’d like). Moroccans often bring a plastic mat to sit on, too, as the floors can get a bit clogged. Mats can be bought easily enough in any town. Most Moroccans use a pasty, olive oil-based soap (sabon bildi), sold by weight in Medina shops. On sale at the same shops, you’ll find kiis flannel gloves, a fine mud (ghasoul), used by some instead of shampoo, pumice stones (hazra) for removing dead skin, and alum (chebba), used as an antiperspirant and to stop shaving cuts from bleeding.

Essentials

Everything you need to know before you set off.

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