If you ever visit Morocco (or Barcelona for that matter) then enjoying a hammam is an essential tourist experience, but for the newcomer the words hammam, gommage and rhassoul could leave you confused and nervous as you step into the traditional baths.
But even for the experienced visitor, the tkissila, an incredible secret acrobatic massage handed down through families and practised in only a select few places in the world, takes the hammam experience to a new level.
Here, I take you through the different stages of the traditional experience, and divulge the secrets of the tkissila for the more adventurous spa visitors.
I have been confused by this description, as it is usually described as a Turkish steam bath. Our hotel in Barcelona for example was described as having a hammam, which was actually a sauna and a steam room. Don’t get me wrong, they were great, but not what I expected.
In Morocco and Barcelona our hammam was a hot room, with a water source, so it was somewhere between a sauna and a steam room. The hammam in Barcelona also had a very hot steam room, a plunge pool, rain showers and Arabian water bowls and sinks, so that you could relax and refresh yourself.
In the Palais Rhoul in Marrakech you actually lie on the floor to let the heat rise up through the mat into your body.
Hammams are really enjoyable – especially when it’s cold outside – but you do have to remember to drink lots of water – most will give you bottles of water to take in if you like – or bring your own.
Some hammams are mixed, requiring swimwear, and others are single sex where you can go naked – but always check first – some single sex ones still require swimwear.
If in doubt ask exactly what the details are – don’t be embarrassed, they all seem to be different!
Literally an exfoliation (in French), in traditional hammams this means that someone will first wash you, normally with savon noir (black soap) – which is a beautiful ritual and then use a gommage or scrubbing glove to scrub all the dead skin off your body.
When we went to a hammam in Agadir, Morocco, we thought that there would hardly be any dry skin left – after 3 days on the beach. Also we were a little bit worried by some of the stories from people who had tried hammams elsewhere – so we asked for a gommage doucement – a soft scrubbing.
She scrubbed so hard it was actually on the edge of being painful, which I thought a bit unnecessary, until she scrubbed my forearm and I saw rolls of dead skin sloughing off. It grossed me out and I thought how dirty the Moroccans must think we are – they do this once a week!
Although in some places you can keep on your bikini and/or paper knickers, really I say what’s the point? After 2 minutes I wasn’t aware if she was scrubbing my boobs or my back. Speaking of which, it is the best back exfoliation I have ever had. I often get an itchy patch between my shoulder blades – she just scrubbed it right off – leaving it smooth and soft.
For the next few days I couldn’t help running my hands over my skin. And I continued scrubbing at home with a glove I bought in Agadir – seeing the dead skin actually coming off on the glove! Sadly it fell apart – so I am now on the lookout for a serious gommage glove in the UK – but no luck so far!
I have heard that gommage is not suitable for people with sensitive skin – but I have very sensitive skin and I love it and feel it only does my skin good.
A traditional gommage will leave your skin so smooth you won’t be able to stop stroking it.
Rhassoul is a type of therapeutic mud. And a rhassoul treatment is basically when, usually after a gommage, you are smothered in rhassoul mud, left to “bake” for a while in a hammam, and then washed down.
It can be a little hot, and if it is your first time in a hammam I would actually recommend you give this a miss – perhaps build up to it, as a lot of treatments in one go can dehydrate you – if you haven’t drunk enough water or just simply because of the detox effects of the massage.
I’ve enjoyed the treatment but haven’t really noticed much of a specific effect – but it does smell great.
Tkissila (also sometimes written as Teksilla, Teskssila and Tkssila) is an ancient form of Moroccan massage, which I understand is now only practised by two brothers, descendants of a long line of practitioners, in Marrakech.
A cross between a massage and the kind of manipulation you might receive from a physiotherapist, the fact that it is done on a heated floor means that muscles are already relaxed and it is much easier.
I experienced this at the Palais Rhoul in Marrakech. When you enter the actual hammam, you won’t find opulent, colourful mosaics or indeed a steam room or heated benches to sit on.
If you decide to opt for just a massage, as my sister did, then you can go naked, as the masseur is female, but, if you opt for the traditional tkissila (pronounced as in tuxedo – tuxila), then please make sure you wear your bikini (and make sure it’s a sturdy one!)
My masseur and his brother are masters of the art of Tkissila, descendants of a long line of practitioners and this is one of only two places I understand you can have this treatment (his brother works next door at the more expensive spa).
So… first I was lead by the lady in charge to a simple brown cell and asked to sit on what looked like a yoga mat on the floor.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea to have big buckets of warm water thrown over them, but provided you keep your mouth closed it’s rather like being in a nice warm waterfall.
She grabbed the black soap with eucalyptus efficiently soaped me up and left me lying on the floor.
I was a bit disappointed. No steam, no elegant bench, no funky mosaics, just some subtle, cool lights. It didn’t seem like the best spa in the world. It took me a while to realise that the heat in the room was actually coming up through the floor and lying down, my body was slowly starting to relax.
That’s when my masseur came in. After a few days of covering up from neck to ankle I had been a little aware of my naked legs at lunch. All of a sudden I was in a little brown cell with a Moroccan man in nothing but a pair of bathing shorts (and I was in my bikini!) But it didn’t actually feel weird when he slipped on his Palais Rhoul gommage glove and started to scrub me all over.
Unlike my experience in Agadir a few years ago this scrubbing wasn’t rough at all, but I could see the rolls of dead skin sloughing off. According to my masseur, the cheap gloves (about 20 dh – £1.50) I’d bought in the market were useless, his kind of glove was much better quality (about 50 dh – £4) and exfoliated all the dead, dirty skin without hurting at all. (He presented me with it at the end too.)
After the gommage, he got down to business. It’s funny, last year I saw a physio who had manipulated my spine and there were moments when, even fully clothed, I felt very awkward about having my foot on a guy’s shoulder while he pulled my leg in the other direction. I actually felt quite comfortable with it this time around. Even when I was lying face down and he was pulling my hips in the air. There were clicks, a bit of tightness, but nothing painful or even really uncomfortable, although I think I did sometimes breathe in or out in the wrong places.
Then it got weird.
My masseur lay down on the mat, his knees pointing up and this is when he asked me to sit on his knees.
I’m glad I speak French or this could have been a very different review.
One minute I was balancing on my bottom on his knees, the next I was flying, watching the room go whizzing past, not quite sure anymore which way was up. Suddenly I realised why, as the dramatic shape of the door flew by, this is a very muted room. If there had been lots of colours I’d have probably got dizzy!
When my feet landed on the floor I was giggly. Then he made me do it again – this time backwards. I sat facing his feet and leant backwards. Anyone who has ever done that trust exercise of falling backwards will understand that I felt elated and ridiculous at the same time.
At the end I was giggling and amazed, as much by the fact that I had done it and enjoyed it as by the experience itself.
He sat me down on the floor and washed me all over, including my hair with orange flower blossom products. When we were all done he rough dried my hair, tied my dressing gown up for me and told me I’d sleep like a baby that night.
I sat down for a while on the bench by the pool, until the lady masseur came to find me and give me my final relaxing massage (ditching my wet bikini).
Would I do it again? I’m not sure if it’s a regular one for me, or a once in a lifetime (our taxi driver said it should be twice a week!) and I don’t think it would be for everyone. When she’d finished she left me alone in the room so that I could fully relax – and it was so hard to get up when she did come back!
While my masseur described the usual local hammam, gommage and massage as “for the tourists” there’s something lovely about that experience too, and certainly one I would recommend. But I am so glad that I tried the tkissila too. It was certainly an eye opener and a new level of experience for me.