'I hardly noticed I was topless with this sisterhood of total strangers'

·10-min read
hammams holidays british spa wellness travel hotels
hammams holidays british spa wellness travel hotels

The stereotype of the British prude stretches back hundreds of years – particularly when on holiday. Take the Edwardians, who went so far as to invent wooden bathing machines that rolled into the sea so that women could go for a dip without so much as baring a naked toe.

A YouGov poll on the matter in 2014 found that 65 per cent of the British public agreed that we are too easily offended by nudity, while 50 per cent said they were not comfortable naked. Nearly a decade on, not much has changed. Go to any British beach and you are unlikely to see a single ­topless sunbather. Skip over to the Continent and it is a very different story.

Are we missing a trick here? Surely there is something valuable to learn from countries where people comfortably bare all in public?

It all comes down to body conf­idence – something on which, like most ­people, I have flip-flopped over the years. And so, on a recent trip to Paris, I decided to ditch my swimsuit to see if I could learn anything from my French friends.

Arab baths, Hammam, Aire de Sevilla, Seville - Alamy
Arab baths, Hammam, Aire de Sevilla, Seville - Alamy

I had read about the women-only hammam at La Mosquée de Paris, and declared to my friend, who lived in the French capital, that I would like to make a trip there.

She looked at me sheepishly, a candyfloss pink spreading across her face. She, like me, is British, and the idea of being naked in front of strangers amounts to a small nightmare. But the idea of being naked in front of a friend is genuine real-life horror. “I just won’t enjoy it,” she said.

I pleaded with her that we at least try. It might prove liberating. But she would not budge – and so I ended up trotting off solo to the 5th arrondissement.

The entrance to the hammam is tucked away at the back of the mosque behind a door in the rest­aurant, and I struggled to find it at first, too awkward to ask and unsure if I was in the right place.

From here, my embarrassment only grew. This was certainly not a tourist attraction, nor one accustomed to greeting Britons without a clue what they were doing. The woman on reception handed me a towel, a glove and black soap (the latter two for the scrub) and off I went.

In the changing room I stripped down, trying to glance casually at those around me to copy what they did. Most had bikini bottoms or knickers and went topless, then had a shower before entering the four marble-lined chambers that progressively got steamier and steamier. A fifth room for massages is adorned with mosaic tiles and carved woodwork, with a scattering of light filtering through the stained-glass windows.

La Mosquée de Paris hammam - Lizzie Frainier
La Mosquée de Paris hammam - Lizzie Frainier

I had no idea what I was doing, and being topless only seemed to accentuate how naked I felt inside too. In each chamber, women of all ages, shapes and sizes laid back on the marble, soaking and sweating. Both the scrub and the massages took place in front of others – rather different to the private rooms I was used to at spas.

I gradually grew more comfortable, as I learned what to do from instinct and imitation. And in time, I hardly noticed that I was topless. I went from feeling out of place to at ease with this sisterhood of strangers. There was something glorious about seeing other naked bodies in a completely unsexy way. A reminder that each curve (and roll) makes us unique. That is not to say I will be taking a naturist holiday anytime soon, but I will seek out women-only spaces like this hammam on my future travels.

Hopefully you can find a similar sense of self-love at one of the hammams listed here. And if you really aren’t ready to banish British prudishness once and for all, we have included options that allow for swimsuits or private experiences too.

By Lizzie Frainier

The details: La Mosquée de Paris (39 Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, 75005 Paris; la-mosquee.com; 00 33 143 31 38 20) offers hammam experiences from £26, including towels and tea;  massages from £11; scrubs from £17.

The best hammams... to bare all

Turkish Baths, Harrogate, England

If you are going to bare (almost) all, you might as well do it in splendour – and Harrogate’s original Victorian Turkish baths are as splendid as they come. As well as completing the traditional baths circuit with its eucalyptus-scented steam room, hot rooms and a plunge pool, you can book treatments including aromatic massages and facials.

The details: Baths circuits from £20 for 135 minutes (01423 556746; turkishbathsharrogate.co.uk). At single-sex sessions, swimwear is optional; all mixed sessions are covered. Stay at the Hotel du Vin & Bistro Harrogate; ­doubles from £119, including breakfast (01423 608121; hotelduvin.com). Read the full hotel review here.

Turkish Baths, Harrogate, England - Harrogate Borough Council
Turkish Baths, Harrogate, England - Harrogate Borough Council

Hammam Pacha, Paris, France

The idea of the baths as a women’s haven and place for sharing secrets may be centuries old, but it is very much alive and well at this well-established women-only Tunisian spa in the heart of Paris’s Saint-German-des-Prés quartier. In an elegant building with traditional Moorish arches and mosaics based on the hammams of yore, going topless is the norm here amid the pools and steam rooms. If you fancy indulging further, there is a range of treatments including seaweed body wraps, facials and massages, not to mention a restaurant if you get peckish.

The details: Day admission (including robe, slippers and towel) from £34, or from £56 including scrub (00 33 1 43 06 55 55; hammampacha.com). Stay at L’Hotel; doubles from £353, including breakfast (00 33 1 44 41 99 00; l-hotel.com). Read the full hotel review here.

Cagaloglu Baths, Istanbul, Turkey

Built in 1741, Istanbul’s original ­Ottoman baths, tucked away down a side street off the city’s Sultanahmet Square, are almost a tourist attraction in their own right, thanks to an impressively grandiose, marble-pillared central hall with a vast dome. It is little wonder that past ­visitors have included A-listers from King Edward VIII to John Travolta and Kate Moss. There are separate ­sections for men and women, with four cooling and heating rooms – and in addition to the classic hammam circuit, a range of massages is avail­able.

The details: Hammam circuits from £52 for 45 minutes including a body scrub, Turkish tea and Turkish delight (00 90 212 522 24 24; cagalogluhamami.com.tr). Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Bosphorus; doubles from £672, room only (00 90 212 349 8888; mandarinoriental.com).

Cagaloglu Baths, Istanbul, Turkey - Alamy
Cagaloglu Baths, Istanbul, Turkey - Alamy

Hammam de la Rose, Marrakech, Morocco

With its chic, contemporary take on décor – a mix of royal blues, subtle greens and delicate mosaic-work – this feels more like a boutique hotel than a hammam. That is very much the idea, and you would never know you were in the busy heart of Marrakech. Rather than the traditional communal experience, here you can choose to bathe alone or visit with a partner or group of friends. There is also an extensive list of treatments including facials using orange blossom and rose extracts.

The details: Hammam circuits from £20 including a half-hour treatment with eucalyptus black soap wash, spice body scrub and rose oil massage (00 212 524 44 4769; hammamdelarose.com). Stay at La Maison Arabe; doubles from £161, room only (00 212 524 38 70 10; cenizaro.com/lamaisonarabe/marrakech). Read the full hotel review here.

Les Hammams de la Mosque Hassan II, Casablanca, Morocco

This spa, attached to Casablanca’s ­largest mosque, is popular with locals and visitors alike. Amid fabulous geometric tilework in jewel-like blues, greens, yellows and reds, there are separate areas for men and women and each one includes the usual hot rooms, steam and scrub room as well as a heated saltwater pool, a tea shop and a boutique. You can also book treatments such as rhassoul clay wraps and Argan oil massages.

The details: ­Hammam circuits from £4 for two hours including scrub (00 212 522 472761 for male hammam; 00 212 522 472763 for female hammam; leshammams.ma). Stay at the Four Seasons Hotel ­Casablanca, which offers doubles from £398 (00 212 529 073 700; ­fourseasons.com/casablanca). Read the full hotel review here.

Les Hammams de la Mosque Hassan II, Casablanca, Morocco - Alamy
Les Hammams de la Mosque Hassan II, Casablanca, Morocco - Alamy

The best hammams... to keep covered

El Hammam de Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

The small whitewashed town of Vejer de la Frontera in Andalucia last had a public hammam when Spain was under Moorish rule in the 13th century. But that has changed with the arrival of this decadent traditional hammam. Lather up with locally made savon noir – an olive oil-based black soap – and relax amid bronze Moorish lanterns and carved teak screens.

The details: Hammam circuits from £30 (00 34 621 19 30 30; hammamvejer.com). Stay at Hotel Plaza 18; doubles from £139, including breakfast (00 34 956 44 77 30; califavejer.com). Read the full hotel review here.

Hammam Aire de Sevilla, Seville, Spain

With bathhouses in London, Copen­hagen, New York and Chicago, as well as other Spanish cities, the Aire exper­ience takes inspiration from Ottoman hammams and Roman and Greek bathing traditions. The Seville branch, located in a restored 16th-century Mudéjar palacio, has a salt flotation bath and steam room, while the ritual includes a lime and sugar-based full body scrub on the traditional marble slab followed by an oil massage and honey hair mask.

The details: Hammam circuits including full body scrub and 30-minute massage from £200 (00 34 91 903 22 14; beaire.com). Stay at Hotel Casa 1800; doubles from £129, room only (00 34 954 56 18 00; hotelcasa1800sevilla.com). Read the full hotel review here.

Arab baths, Hammam, Aire de Sevilla, Seville - Aire de Sevilla
Arab baths, Hammam, Aire de Sevilla, Seville - Aire de Sevilla

La Mamounia Hotel, Marrakech, Morocco

Set amid some 17 acres of lush gardens, the Mamounia hotel in Marrakech has been a byword for luxury since its days as a favourite of Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 1960s. The high glamour of the hotel’s art deco take on Islamic style extends to the equally fabulous spa where you can luxuriate in an impressive range of treatments. The signature hammam ritual here includes a neroli and eucalyptus black soap wash, followed by an intense scrub and a ­naturally stimulating ghassoul body wrap.

The details: Overnight packages including a 60-minute treatment from £551 (00 212 524 388 600; mamounia.com). Read the full hotel review here.

La Sultana Marrakech, Morocco

La Sultana is one of Marrakech’s most extravagant but discreet boutique hotels. In its hammam, amid pink marble pillars and Moorish lanterns, treatments include a purifying exfoliation with a traditional “kessa” glove and black soap, as well as a choice of body masks of either toxin-releasing ghassoul clay or moisturising Argan oil. There are also private areas with individual hammams.

The details: Packages from £90 for a half-hour body massage and hammam circuit. Doubles from £350, room only (00 212 5 24 38 54 64; lasultanahotels.com). Read the full hotel review here.

La Sultana Marrakech hammam spa holidays - La Sultana Marrakech
La Sultana Marrakech hammam spa holidays - La Sultana Marrakech

The Bath House – Byzantine Hammam at Acro Suites Crete, Greece

Acro Suites is one of Greece’s newest favourites for A-listers, not least on account of its spa. The signature treatments begin with the thermal bath ­circuit followed by full body exfoliation, a detox mask and a full-body foam massage with products by Ariadne – a Greek skincare brand that uses natural, organic Mediterranean ingredients. Other treatments include shiatsu, pregnancy and lymphatic drainage massages and acupuncture; couples treatments are also available.

The details: Overnight packages including ­hammam experience from £482 (00 30 281 081 2240; acrosuites.com).

By Eddi Fiegel

For details of entry requirements and Covid rules for your favourite destinations, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-travelrules. Refer to gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for further travel information.

Do you think the British are more prudish than others around the world? Would you bare it all in a traditional hammam on holiday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below