On Hammams


On Hammams
A good long sweat helps boost the skin’s natural cleansing processes and chills us out, says Caroline Sylger Jones

When I’m not in the mood for my daily walk, I go and sweat out my stress in a steam room. My local is of the practical, uninspiring variety – just a box with plastic seats, really, none of your mosaic tiles, eucalyptus infusions or fibre optic lights in the ceiling that change colour. But when it comes to keeping me sane, sustained sweating is up there alongside cups of green tea and yoga sessions, and I can’t always be fussy. After 30 minutes, I exfoliate in the shower to slough off the loosened dead skin cells, rinse with water as cold as I can bear it and emerge feeling practically human again.

A good long sweat helps boost the skin’s natural cleansing processes, getting rid of dead cells and the unwanted toxins in our system. Like any detox, it also calms busy heads and clears negative minds. There’s a sense of ritual to it – go in dirty, aching, angry and indecisive; emerge clean, soothed and a tad more in control. The King loves the sauna, but I need wet heat, and the most effective place I’ve found to get it is in a hammam. Arabic for ‘spreader of warmth’, these vaulted, marbled steam bath-houses date back to the Romans and Byzantines and they really are the business.

My first experience of a public hammam was with my friend Vanessa, who was living at the time in Istanbul. She took me to a tucked-away little outfit where local women would sweat and chat on a daily basis. After heating up nicely in the sicaklik (hot room), I lay stark naked on a toasty stone slab to be lathered from head to toe by a strong-handed, smiling masseuse. I’m not usually a prissy European, but I did worry whether the soap she was using might be of the toxic, rash-inducing variety, then found out to my shame that it was a 100% natural black cleansing bar. This doesn’t lather, but instead turns to a cream as soon as you add warm water. It cleanses and hydrates the skin and helps to strengthen hair. No part of me was left uncovered.

After a 10 minute rest I got the mitt treatment, watching through the steam as tiny rolls of dead skin were stripped away. Like skin brushing or an assisted stretch, being scraped with a rough mitt by somebody else gives you that exquisite feeling of ‘good’ pain followed by the pleasure of relief when it stops. My masseuse, still smiling, then chucked buckets of – water over my head continually for a good five minutes. This felt just as great – if you’ve got hot enough in the steam, you’ll find it a welcome refreshment rather than a feat of endurance. The whole process had the effect of a chemical peel without the chemicals, and later, in the sogukluk (cool room), my skin felt as soft as a banana smoothie, my mind as sweet.

After that visit, I graduated to the hammams in hotels and resorts, which are always smaller, more sweet-smelling, and 100 times the price. Vanessa treated me to a luxurious sea salt and olive oil version of the traditional scrub at the Kempinski Hotel in Bodrum, Turkey, where the Six Senses Spa has two beautiful hammams with skylights. Chiva Som in Thailand has a giant hammam I rather like, and no hotel I’ve been to in Morocco has ever failed me. The back-to-basics, romantic Kasbah du Toubkal, perched above the village of Imlil, has a rough and ready hammam which uses rubber tyres as water buckets, with the coldest plunge pool I’ve ever teeth-clenched my way into. I especially liked the slow-motion videos of birds either side of the walkway up to the hammams at the extravagant La Mamounia in Marrakech. My most delicious hammam experience, however, was at the exquisitely designed Riad El Fenn in Marrakech, where after my scrub an attentive therapist split an orange in half and squeezed its juice over my body, then poured a stream of divine-smelling rosewater from an elegant jar all over my head and face.

So far, so good. Sipping sweet mint tea afterwards, sitting beside a pomegranate tree, I vowed never to return to my local soggy-smelling steam room and pathetic excuse for an exfoliating mitt. Alas, the power of the sweat always gets the better of me. Next time I get really stressed though, I’m going to head to Siwa in Egypt, where for over 400 years locals have been experiencing the hammam ramal, burying themselves neck-high in desert sand to sweat out their ailments in a bizarre and highly uncomfortable-sounding ritual. That should sort it.

Explore more

Hammans can often be accessed on wellbeing retreats in Morocco. Looking for other ways to sweat out everyday cares and boost your immunity? Explore our selection of retreats with saunas in our Journal.

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