when in a country where there are hammams, i always try and visit one — it’s simultaneously a stressful yet calming experience. it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to undress and subject yourself to the norms of a culture completely different to your own, but then so sublime to get tended to in such an oddly intimate way as a scrub-down and massage.
i first tried to visit Hammam el-Kachachine (a male-only establishment; there are others that are mixed, but segregated by time of day, and some that are female-only), tucked away on a side street (30 Souq des Libraires) in the midst of the souk, on a Sunday, but note that pretty much everything in the medina (old town) is closed. Monday morning, though, open for business! you’ll easily spot hammams as you walk through the old town from the standard candystripe paint job outside (like a barber shop pole).
and in fact, to get to the hammam, you have to pass through a barber shop! (this view is as you exit the hammam back towards the street.)
once you get inside, i went to the (very lethargic) man at the desk to the left. he didn’t seem to speak a lot of French (or English), but someone else came up to me who worked there and managed the whole thing. i’m not quite sure how much i spent (hammam fee, massage fee, shampoo fee, towel fee, tip), but i think it came to somewhere around 10 dinars ($5). the whole experience lasted about half an hour.
you don’t need to bring anything, as you can just buy or rent whatever you need right there. if you want, you can bring swimming trunks (what the locals wear), or just borrow a large Turkish towel (serviette) which they will wrap around you.
once all is settled and you hand over all your personal belongings for safekeeping to the old man at the front desk, you’ll be directed to a changing room — take everything off and hang your clothes on the pegs on the wall. wrap the towel around you (if you’re not in trunks) and slip on a pair of those wooden shoes, which are very very hard to walk in; you more or less have to shuffle and make sure you don’t slip.
this hammam is perhaps the smallest i’ve been to and is not very glamorous, but it does get the job done. follow the man to the very back room where you will soak in a hot tub for about 5 minutes. there were three other locals in it at the same time i was. you will want to sit so you are facing the shorter walls — for some reason that seems to be the custom?
your masseur will then lead you to a marble slab in another room where he will use a scrubbing mitt to exfoliate every square inch of your body, then he’ll proceed to start massaging you by stand on your back, then contort you into a pretzel in the name of a stretching, then wash you all over with soapy water. the experience ends with you going into a shower stall and giving yourself a bucket (well, a metal can) shower with the packet of shampoo you bought at the front desk.
the masseur gave me another big wrap-around towel to use to exit (so i didn’t have to use the completely wet one) and another employee (who i had to tip for “watching my clothes”) gave me a small terry cloth one to finish drying myself with in the changing room.
i wouldn’t say this experience is for the timid, but heck, when in a hammam country, why not give it a shot? in this case, as with many places here in Tunisia, it helps if you can speak French (for once i understood the directions a hammam masseur was giving me!), but i’m sure you could also get by with just English.
p.s. in case you’re wondering, the locals did not have a problem with my tattoos or piercings.