WORSHIPPING AT THE ALTAR OF LA MAMOUNIA
Savage but salubrious, an atonement for your sins. Phoebe J. McDowell submitted herself to the motions of the time-honoured hammam.
When I think of Marrakech certain visions are conjured: burnt orange swathes of fabric; leathery locals shovelling cauldrons of nuts; rusty dislocated cars narrowly missing one another; sugary mint tea and hammams. And I now know the latter – an attendant Islamic cleansing ritual – to be practised nowhere better than at La Mamounia, the most sumptuous address in the city.
Subterranean, the dark tiled spa is sultry and arresting. Quite, where through the delicate fretwork screens (moucharabiehs) might meet the eyes of forbidden lovers. Or so I imagine. Keyhole arches veer off into warrens of antechambers and then, into shrouds of candlelit darkness. The indoor pool is otherworldly. Ethereal light from the coffered ceiling darts across the room casting shadows from the zellige columns. And beckoning like a King to his subject, is a suspended platform strewn with cushions.
The hammam starts in a glistening steam room where haze catches the throat insistently. It’s as soon as you cast aside the notion of hopeless relaxation and realise that hammams are democratic; local or not; thick skinned or not, that you may – amidst the zealous scrubbing – consider it a mainstay of your regime. Penetrative heat seeps into naked pores, and as you’re unfolded onto a large marble slab called the gobektasi, a chorus of sloshing water, sluicing buckets and frothing wire sponges begins. Scrupulously attended to, skin is scoured, rubbed, pulped and pummelled. It's a visceral shock but one that supplies an unquenchable vitality. As black in colour as the ‘gommage’ exfoliant sourced from the Atlas mountains, are the worms of impurities that wriggle from the skin. Post scrub, as you lie supine in an alcove, sipping mint tea in a fluffy robe, you’ll find yourself in a state of tranquil contemplation.
Invigorated and rejuvenated, a walk through La Mamounia’s gardens best evinces your heightened senses. Manicured to perfection, there's an intoxicating melange of agave, blossom and orange. Transcendental bird song rides the air and rose-strewn water fountains trickle away. Around the vast azure pool are a herd of white cushioned loungers. Beautiful girls waft around, and eyes remain peeled in the hope of sneaking a peak at any of the hotel’s famed frequenters, of which there are many. Standing on cue are traditionally dressed men who customarily arrive unannounced with a silver tray of salty nuts and gobstopper-sized olives.
If there’s anything to prepare you for the throng and tumult of the medina and the unforgiving African sun, it is this and it is here.