10 February 2008


Yesterday we spent the morning shopping at the wonderful Sommieres market. As always, it was fabulous. There were the most amazing artichokes...the size of melons and all purple and deep green, but we passed on those in favor of the squash for a hearty potage (thick soup) and huge leaves of spinach dark green and perfect for a saute with mushrooms and lardons (smoky bits of bacon). Of course we hit our favorite bakery there. All of the breads and pastries are baked over a smoky wood fire which leaves behind just a hint of the wood flavor as well as a crunchy crust and an incredibly soft interior.

After sharing a lunch of dried sausages, olives, salad and a wonderful selection of cheese, my friend Melanie kidnapped me for an afternoon at the newest women's hamam in Montpellier. This was a bit scary for me as a first timer. I had a stereotypical vision in my head of the Turkish baths of the cinema filled with hairy fat men...yuck! A hamam is actually the name of the steam room at the baths that Muslims use for purification. Melanie -who is from Guadalupe - has been going to the hamam since she was young. Muslim women go weekly to do this purification process. There is a separate section for the men and the women, but the one we went to was just for women. It was not part of a mosque as is normal, but a private commercial hamam.

Melanie said this hamam took almost a year to complete. It is owned by three French women who love Morocco and the hamams there. It is a beautiful and peaceful place. The front is a tea room for women only and is decorated with low benches covered with pillows and square low poufs to sit on.

Once you go through the door to the actual hamam, you enter a dark and quiet staircase lined with candles and quiet music drifting up the curved staircase. It is dimly lit and tiled with golden shimmery tiles or painted in deep purples and browns that reflect the lights and candles. You are handed over to a woman who leads you through the rituals of the hamam that you have choosen.

You sit in a warm steam room for about half an hour to sweat out all of the impurities. Then you are covered from head to toe with a blackish soap...turning you into a slippery fish. You sit again in the steam room for a bit. Then you are rinsed off and scrubbed energetically with a louffa leaving you on the brink of pain, but feeling like a newborn baby...all pink and soft. Then oils smelling incredibly of orange blossom or rose water are rubbed into every bit of your skin from your toes to your face. At this point, you either go back into the steam room to let the oils steep or you rest on the stone table like a pink pig too tired to move...like me! After a little dodo (nap), you are rinsed off and the final step is a dousing with a bucket of water heaved at you from behind over your head. Now you are pure and clean and ready for a peaceful and thorough massage with this oil that leaves your skin so incredibly soft and smooth.

The day was ended with the typical tea of North Africa steeped with fresh mint. It was an amazing and relaxing afternoon...and a newfound indulgence that will be repeated! We are already planning our next escape. To imagine that Muslims go to the hamam weekly creates jealousy in me! You feel so refreshed and peaceful after a few hours of sweating and scrubbing and massage. I had this deep seeded feeling that such indulgences were pratically sinful, but I have seen the light and are a new woman!! Melanie laughs at me and just asks when I would like to accompany her again!

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