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Downtown, Cairo, Egypt.
Hammam El Arbaa: A Ghetto Cleansing Adventure
Behind the towering World Trade Centre and Conrad hotel, in the narrow alleys of Shobra, sits Hammam El Arbaa, just as it has been for the past 500 years. The hammam (Arabic for bath) provides a steam bath, massage, and a full body wash for a mere 25LE. Whichever way you look at it, trying out a hammam to see what the fuzz is all about won’t waste anything but a little dead skin off your back.
The establishment was bought by a man named Awkal eleven years ago. A devoted patron to the hammam himself, Awkal took over the decaying bath from its ambivalent owners and revamped the place while taking pains to maintain the rustic aesthetic. You’ll feel like you walked into a time warp when you’re at El Arbaa. Some kitsch has lurked its way inside, yet the dome-shaped cellars will make you feel very nostalgic.
The hammam is a five-minute walk from the Boulaq police station. We recommend that you park your car there and have a nice walk down the quiet alleyways. If you ask anyone on the street for directions, they’ll be more than happy to point you the right way; but be sure to mention which hammam you are looking for: Hammam El Arbaa is situated right next to Hammam El Talaat.
The procedure they follow is based on Turkish bath methods introduced to Egypt during the Othman period, as well as Moroccan hammam traditions. You first step into a piping hot bath with steam all around you, where you stay for a few minutes before you rinse in a cold-water tub. It’s a form of hydrotherapy that challenges your thermoregulation and stimulates your blood circulation. There is scepticism about the procedure’s healing powers, but it’s rejuvenating nevertheless. It may leave you a little dizzy, but we’ve been told that it’s normal and healthy; as it means that your body is exuding all its energy by trying to maintain its core temperature.
The highlight of the hammam experience is the massage and the full-body wash. At Awkal, the massage is performed by a middle-aged man with a gut the size of a watermelon. He performs it while wearing nothing but his tighty whities, and his gut tends to get in the way occasionally. Instead of oils, the rounded masseur applies soap on your body and proceeds to rub it all over your back and chest. It’s intensive and quick, and not at all relaxing; but afterwards your muscles will feel relieved.
Next is the full-body wash, in which a younger man wears a gritty glove and scrubs the dead skin off your entire body. You then take a shower to get rid of the soap and take another round of hot and cold dips.
Hammam El Arbaa has a waiting room outside, where they offer hot tea and other traditional drinks. Its patrons are an exciting mix of working-class Egyptians and adventurous foreigners. It’s not as sketchy as you might think, and many people that give it a try find themselves returning periodically. The hammam is cheap, cleansing and most definitely memorable. Go with a bunch of your friends for maximum fun.
On the hunt for swimming pool day-use to escape from Cairo’s heat, we knew we were in for a day of luxury when we rocked up at Fairmont Nile City. Its looming towers glisten with an almost Art Deco twinkle – Gatsby, eat your heart out. The glass-fronted elevator whisked us up 24 stories, through the grandiose magnificence of the ballrooms, conference rooms, restaurants and bars contained in the hotel, to the hotel spa where we made our booking. And 24th floor spa means 25th floor pool – and that means rooftop pool!
We prayed for the sun to shine on our day at the pool, and it did us proud. While you’re sure to get a tan that high out of the smog of inner city Cairo, we also caught a nice breeze as we lounged atop the towering building.
The pool is technically part of Willow Stream Spa, where Fairmont’s guests pamper themselves and stay healthy in its gym, pool, massage parlour, hair salon, lounge, and spa. For 550LE, all of this, except for the massages and salon, is available.
In case you missed our hints, the view from this place is out-of-this-world, and is best enjoyed gazing down upon it from the Jacuzzi, with drink in hand. The hotel’s position means that the Nile snakes along below and the vast hulking mass of Cairo sprawls out where ever you look. The magnitude of the city is staggering from this vantage point, and the quiet of the rooftop calls for a moment of reflection.
There are plenty of chairs arranged around the pool and under canopies, so visitors can eat, chat and sunbathe as they wish. Pool attendants are ready with clean, fluffy towels for all and food and drink can be ordered. Although the pool isn’t huge, it’s fine for splashing about in, and there’s a separate toddler and baby pool as well. Although a few families were out enjoying the weather, it was mostly adults swimming, and it would be possible for the keen swimmer to do a few short laps undisturbed. The water stayed cool and refreshing all day, but despite the rooftop setting, it still falls into shadow from about 5pm by a taller building next-door.
The pool can be used between 7AM and sunset each day, and although we arrived around 11AM and there were still spots to sit at, all the seats were filled up by about lunchtime. Overall, though, you cannot go wrong at Fairmont Nile City for a day of relaxing, replenishment and rejuvenation.