hammam

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

Hammam Spa Treatments

In which our correspondent bravely tests Turkish steam baths around the world to let you know exactly what to expect from a hammam and which are her favorites.

Turkish-style baths, or hammams, aren’t quite like this anymore

I was a bit nervous at first. Rebecca, one of the founders of the company I work for, called me into her office. As I took my seat, I saw a blurry photo of Rebecca with a massive smile on her face and asked where it was taken. Turns out it was on an African safari as she was jostled along in the back of an open vehicle. It was one of those exuberant moments you experience while traveling that bring you joy every time you recollect it.

Once I realized we shared a passion for travel, the conversation (and those that followed) came quickly and easily.

Except for my submission to heat, steam, merciless scrubbing and pelting cold showers, the world would never know where to obtain the cleanest, most open pores. In other words, it would be a smaller, grubbier place.

Having just returned from a trip to Morocco, Rebecca was kind enough to write up a couple of travel essays for us. The poor dear has suffered through numerous pamperings (and intense scrub-downs) on multiple continents to educate you on what exactly to expect from a hammam experience — and to tell you her favorites.  –Wally

 

Hammam Me

I have been to hammams in five countries. My patronage of sybaritic Turkish steam baths is not for my own enjoyment nor my need for yet more relaxation on a relaxing vacation. I once let a small, brown-skinned woman lash me with a sheaf of wet herbs while we squatted inside a pizza oven — and I paid her to do it.

I do this as a public service. Consider it my gift to humanity. Except for my submission to heat, steam, merciless scrubbing and pelting cold showers, the world would never know where to obtain the cleanest, most open pores. In other words, it would be a smaller, grubbier place.

A hammam, if you’ve never been in one, is a structure built of stone. Some are palatial — marble-lined rooms, floors, ceilings and walls — some are humble like the mud-brick pizza oven. There is a steamy heat source, maybe jets embedded in the ceiling, maybe water poured over hot bricks. You lie, naked (or with “disposable” underpants, which is as good as naked), on some stone surface which is itself warm, then hot. You close your eyes, at least in part to keep the sweat from running in them, and you wait. Maybe you doze.

Eventually, when your pores are at their most receptive, an attendant enters. (There are hammams that break the strictly unisex rule but they cater to tourists and are to be avoided just as you should avoid restaurants with pictures of the food instead of words on the menu.) The attendant has a loofah and sometimes a sponge. Attendants are large, with biceps like prizefighters and that same disapproving expression your mother had while bathing you after a tough day in the sand box. The small, brown-skinned woman was only the exception that proves the rule.

The attendant begins to scrub you with the loofah. It is a pitiless but thoroughly comforting experience. One human being performing an intimate personal service for another — again, bath time, mother and child, often with the requisite tsk-tsking.

The loofah may be followed by the sponge. Now you feel bathed rather than flayed. You skin begins to breathe again, to thank you for the detoxing.

Finally, the attendant rinses you, dipping a bowl into cooler and cooler water and pouring it over every inch of freshly excavated flesh.

That camel trek in the Atlas Mountains? A gritty puddle on the floor. That week of sunblock mixed with bug spray and safari dust? Circling the drain in a muddy swirl. All those dead skin cells unexfoliated in years of regular but admittedly perfunctory showers? Pilled up in a truly shameful way all over your body. All of it washed away, leaving nothing but new muffin tops from too much Turkish delight. You are as pink and soft as a newborn, appropriately swaddled in clean, dry towels.

Now comes the best part. The large woman hands you, somewhat literally, to another woman, smaller, lither, more nimble but with hands like a bricklayer’s, without the callouses. Let her knead your muscles but shake her hand at your peril. The massage lasts anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, according to my research. At some point, she will have to manually turn you over when you have reached the energy level of cooked pasta.

The only possible post-hammam activity is a nap. Try to avoid sucking your thumb and curling into the fetal position.

All I have to say for this exhaustive, entirely altruistic research: You’re welcome.
 

Rebecca’s Hammam Superlatives

Most beautiful hammam: Istanbul, Turkey

Best towels: Cairo, Egypt (Egyptian cotton)

Best soap: Fès, Morocco (black eucalyptus)

Best scrub: Agadir, Morocco (stern Berber woman)

Best sponges: Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (harvested just offshore)

Best aromatherapy: Oaxaca, Mexico (herbs from the garden)

Best massage: Oaxaca

Close second: Siem Reap, Cambodia (not strictly speaking a hammam, but the whole country is so humid, you can get the effect anytime you’re outside)

Most confusing: Pizza oven

What’s the Best Hammam Spa Experience in Fes, Morocco?

Get pampered (and scrubbed and steamed) at Palais Amani’s hammam spa in Fès, Morocco

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

A spa day in Morocco isn’t quite the same thing you’d expect in the United States. But hammams have been a part of the Moroccan culture for centuries — and you’ll leave literally transformed. I'm not quite exaggerating when I say you'll feel like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

So if you’re in Fès and you don’t stay at Palais Amani, you at least need to undergo its one-of-a-kind hammam experience. I recommend doing so your last full day in town. If you go earlier, the sometimes stressful navigation of the medina’s winding pathways might negate its calming, rejuvenating effects.

You’ll leave literally transformed. I’m not quite exaggerating when I say you’ll feel like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Here’s a walk-through of our day of bliss at Les Bains Amani:

 

Chambre No. 1

The changing room

After a brief wait in the lovely interior courtyard, amidst the gurgling of a fountain and the chirping of birds in the lush foliage, Soukaina, who works in the spa at Palais Amani, approached us. Her beautiful face framed by a head scarf, she led us to a side entrance near the dining area. Up some stairs and into a cozy room with two lounges.

We had been told to bring swimsuits, but to be honest, the typical men’s swimming trunks would be too bulky. If you’re a Speedo type guy, you’d be all set. I instead opted for boxer briefs, which worked out great. They ended up soaking wet by the end, so just remember to bring a spare pair of underwear or you’ll be going commando.

We donned the fluffy robes provided for us, stretched out on the lounges and wondered what awaited us.

 

Chambre No. 2

Hand and foot scrub

Our hostess returned and led us down to the hammam. It’s in the basement, where the original kitchen once was. Inside a small antechamber, Duke and I sat on a marble bench while the silhouettes of two women emerged from the dark — jagged chiaroscuros in the flickering of candlelight.

Using a mixture of rose water and bran, they began scrubbing our feet and hands.

When my woman got to one of my strange, bulbous thumbs, she stopped, confused and looked at me.

“No problem?” she asked.

I didn’t really know what to say, so I laughed and assured her, “Ça marche.” That works.

Then she got to the other thumb and grabbed it playfully.

“Les deux,” I told her, to indicate they’re both like that. I was really growing fond of her.

Finishing off the process, the women ran a white clay and henna mixture through our hair. Soukina had assured us it wouldn’t dye our hair at all, though I think it would have been fun seeing what it’s like being a faux ginger for a bit, like the adorable vicar on Grantchester.

 

Chambre No. 3

Rinse, scrub and steam

This is where things got pretty intense. We were led into an adjoining room. It’s larger, with seating along two sides and a fireplace along one end, a large cauldron of water in its depths.

You stand in front of the cauldron, and the women alternately scrub your epidermis raw with exfoliation gloves and pour warm, soothing water over you to rinse the soap off. They grab handfuls of what is referred to as black soap (and is actually a dark brown abrasive goo made of argan oil and mint).

We had visited the small hammam attached to our riad in Marrakech, and after the vigorous scrubbing, I told Duke that, believe it or not, it actually hurt more than getting my tattoo.

I might have been exaggerating. A bit.

It’s almost too bad it was so dark in the room. You can’t see all the skin they’ve sloughed off. I can attest from our last hammam, when there was more light, that there are dark rings of dead skin that collect around your wrists and, presumably, ankles.

You'll feel like you’ve been rebirthed. Fresh, soft and new.

After the dermabrasion, the ladies left us to soak up the steam. We sat on our benches as the room filled with thick, billowing white clouds. It grew more and more difficult to breathe. Soukaina had mentioned that if it gets too hot to let the staff know, and they’ll release some of the steam.

I could tell Duke was starting to freak out, so I suggested we both lie down. That definitely helped us relax.

And just when we thought we had been forgotten and would end up a puddle of water like Frosty the Snowman in the greenhouse, our scrubbing saviors came to fetch us.

 

Chambre No. 4

Douche

That’s French for shower, sillies. Here’s another useful phrase: un peu trop chaud (“uh puh trow show,” more or less). A little too hot.

It came in handy when my attendant expected me to enter the scalding hot shower.

We were left on your own for this portion. I was so used to being completely pampered, I would have just stood there all day, waiting to be lathered up if Duke hadn’t gone first and let me know we actually had to do the work during this segment.

Again, I could only imagine the skin I shed. It must’ve looked like a snake had molted before it slipped down the drain.

 

Back to Chambre No. 2

Drying off

The shower room led back to the antechamber where we had our foot and hand scrubs.

Here the two women dried us off. Mine made an adorable production of including my belly button, which made us both giggle. Then they put us in hooded robes. I felt like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.

 

Back upstairs to Chambre No. 1

Tea and relaxation

In the changing room once again, we found a pot of tea waiting for us, along with a plate of coconut macaroons. We nibbled on the delicious cookies and exalted in our luxurious excursion. I could literally do this every day. Maybe I was royalty in a past life. It just felt right.

Chamomile tea and coconut macaroons awaited us after the hammam experience

 

Chambre no. 5

Massage

After 20 or so minutes, Soukaina knocked on the door and led us down one floor to the massage room. Duke and I got massages next to each other. It’s not a relaxing rub — but it’s also not a deep-tissue to work through knotted muscles either. It’s something in between.

At one point, my masseuse bent my legs and arms into bizarre contortions. It confused me at first, but ultimately felt good.

After the massage, you shower in the en suite bathroom. This was when I realized I didn’t have dry underpants. I survived.

 

Wally basks in that post-hammam glow

Feeling utterly transformed, relaxed, pampered, ready to face anything, Duke and I emerged into the gorgeous courtyard and sat at a small table to eat the light lunch that was included in the Drop In and Unwind package.

Following lunch, we explored a bit of the hotel, then enjoyed drinks on the rooftop terrace. I can’t imagine spending a lovelier day. –Wally

 

Palais Amani: A Breathtaking Fès Hotel

The courtyard fountain at the impressive Palais Amani, located in the heart of Fès’ old city

Experience modern luxury suites surrounding a gorgeous, secluded courtyard garden. Or just pop in to get pampered at the hammam. You’ll Soon FOrget you’re right in the midst of Fez’s medieval medina.

Sometimes it’s fun inducing jealousy with Snapchat vids, like this one of the gorgeous Palais Amani in Fès


We highly recommend getting pampered in a historic palace as the perfect way to close a vacation.

A guide met us at our riad around 9:30 a.m. on our last full day in Fès and led us to the opulent Palais Amani, located on the northern side of the medina. We had decided to splurge and scheduled the Drop in and Unwind spa package at les Bains Amani. The luxurious experience includes traditional hammam and massage treatments, which use skin-nourishing argan oil sourced from a cooperative located in the Ourika Valley.

The gardens were alive with birdsong and the soothing gurgle of the courtyard fountain, which dissolved the boundary between indoors and out.

When we arrived, the gardens were alive with birdsong and the soothing gurgle of the courtyard fountain, which dissolved the boundary between indoors and out.

We were welcomed by the lovely Soukaina, who escorted us to a changing room complete with daybeds and plush terrycloth bathrobes.
 

If you don’t stay at the Palais Amani in Fès, be sure to at least stop by to experience their marvelous hamman, courtyard and roof terrace

A Luxury Hammam

Bowls of warm water were ceremoniously poured over us as the two women filled from the fountain located within the steam room. Our hands were placed in a bowl of warm water as a mineral-rich henna mud was applied to our hair.

We were then led to the steam room, where we were each served a glass of refreshing ginger lemonade and left to detoxify. I’m not sure how long we remained in there — suffice to say, that it induced the most intense sweat I’ve ever experienced. Wally suggested we lie down, as we were finding it difficult to breathe in the heavy steam. Maybe we had a few too many toxins to expel?

The women returned and proceeded to scrub us down with course exfoliating gloves and black soap with argan oil and wild mint.  

This was all rinsed off in a shower, and we went back up to our changing room, where we rested, sipping chamomile tea and eating the most delicious coconut macaroons.

Then came an argan and eucalyptus oil massage. Wally and I literally felt transformed — and who wouldn’t after having layers of dead skin gently sloughed off?

The lobby includes a boutique with handmade pottery and spa products, so you can re-create the experience at home.

A light lunch in the courtyard was part of our hamman package

Afterward, we were taken to sit in the tranquil garden terrace. Lunch was smoked salmon atop pillowy brioche rounds paired with a trio of refreshing salads: beet, smoky aubergine and diced cucumber.



Medieval Meets Modern

Wally enjoying the beautifully tiled courtyard fountain

As we ate, we were taken care of by the operations manager, Hana, who told us about the history of the hotel and introduced us to one of the owners, Abdelali Baha. He asked if we were enjoying our afternoon at the palace. We told him of course we were.

Abdelali is originally from Fès, so the Palais Amani restoration was a project of “coming home,” as it were.

“Our other partners have been connected to the Arab world for a long time and wanted to find a way to invest in Morocco,” Abdelali’s wife, Jemima, told us.

A seating area in the palais’ courtyard

The Palais Amani “originally dates back to the 17th century, but the family we bought it from rebuilt the majority of the palace in the 1920s, after a landslide badly damaged most of the building,” Jemima explained. “This explains the Art Deco feel to the palace.”

The original owners were a prominent family of merchants who imported silverware and cotton from Manchester, England, among other things.

Stunning columns and intricate woodwork add to the Palais Amani’s grandeur

It was rumored that 50 family members once resided here and each room had its own kitchen.

The boutique hotel was a labor of love and fully revitalized in 2007, taking a total of four years to complete. They have a wonderful photo album documenting the restoration.

The investors worked with local craftsmen to complete the renovation. Hand-cut traditional zellij tiles, stuccowork and cedar woodwork were fully restored.

“The original craft techniques still exist, so that was laborious but relatively easy,” Jemima said.

The palace’s original footprint was modified. The hammam, for instance, was once a kitchen. Palais Amani now has 15 spacious suites, including the Royal Suite, which occupies an entire wing.

The bar on the rooftop features a design made from bobbins, used in embroidery

When asked about the biggest difficulties of the renovation, Jemima responded, “The size! It took four years, but when you see how big the building is, it is not really that long. The biggest challenge was probably access to the building through the tiny alleyways and getting the level of modern comforts just right in a medieval city.”

The tree-filled courtyard is a tranquil setting for a pleasant meal

The tree-filled courtyard is a tranquil setting for a pleasant meal

“Were there any interesting discoveries during renovation?” we asked.

“Letters dating back to the 1930s, showing commercial links with Manchester were a great find,” Jemima told us. “But also during the first six months of renovation, it rained nonstop — practically unheard of in Morocco. We found every leak in the building! With hindsight, this was a good thing, as we were able to repair them all — but it was alarming at the time!”

Post-massage drinks on the rooftop terrace

Afterward we made our way to the rooftop terrace, where we enjoyed a cocktail and the view of this amazing ancient city. –Duke