by Kate Pocock
The Spa: Le Hammam steam baths at the Mosque de Paris, France’s oldest place of Islamic worship.
The Location: 39, rue Geoffrey St-Hilaire on the Left Bank, about a 10-minute walk from Île St-Louis or Rue Mouffetard. Metro: Place Monge. The somewhat hidden Hammam entrance is behind the pastry counter in the mosque’s charming courtyard café.
The Environment: This 5th arrondissement neighbourhood holds some of Paris’s oldest attractions such as the ancient Roman amphitheatre (Arènes de Lutèce) and the 400-year-old Gobelins Tapestries workshops. Directly across from the Mosque is the vast Jardin des Plantes, originally planted as medicinal herb gardens in 1626.
The Distinction: The Paris Mosque is a good place for first Hammam experiences. Hammam, meaning ‘spreader of warmth’ in Arabic, has also become synonymous with steam baths and bathing. Here, all nationalities and religions are welcome, as well as all shapes and sizes!
The Experience: Everyone knows the French words for massage and masseuse, manicure and pedicure. But how about gommage, a treatment listed at the Hamman baths in the Paris Mosque? “I think it has something to do with pummeling,” says my friend Sharon, who was game enough to accompany me for our first Hammam experience. “I had a friend who went to a steam bath once. And she was pummelled.”
The scene that greeted us, however, as we stepped into the large vaulted atrium of the baths was more like a sensual Arabian Nights. The high room, lavishly decorated with mosaic tiles and carved woodwork, filtered sunlight through stained glass and filigreed lanterns. Around the edges of the room, in various states of undress, lay women reclined on beds covered with cushions, sipping mint tea from tiny glasses, nibbling on pastries, laughing, whispering and drifting in and out of sleep. “I feel like the Sultan may come at any moment,” whispers Sharon.
Luckily, one of these women who spoke perfect English from years in Boston, came to the rescue of our bewildered faces. She explained the Hammam process: how to choose and pay for our treatments; where to get our locker keys, robes and packets of olive-scented black soap; how to pick our slippers from the communal basket; and how to proceed through the five marble-lined chambers from steam to water and back to steam, each one heating up to the extreme 60-degree temperature of the plunging pool room. Yow.
She also explained the grande finale of yes, gommage (“erasing” or exfoliation—phew!) and massage with scented oils on one of the three massage tables surrounding the fountain in this very room. In public, so different from the guarded privacy of most North American spas. “Try to stay as long as possible in each room,” she advised. “It might be hot, but your skin will thank you for it.”
We must have looked like neophytes as we donned our bikinis, negotiated the hoses, filled our buckets with cool water, opened our soap packets and sat on the benches in each chamber to sweat and soak in the heat. Before you knew it, we were swashing each other with cold water and screeching like some of the other patrons, who were washing and dousing each other with tipped buckets and laughter. In the last room, I could hardly breathe and ordered Sharon to get out of the pool. I did not want to pick her up from the marble floor as she fainted or slipped on the wet.
By the end of our all-over massages by capable and gentle North African women, we’d been heated, steamed, soaked and drenched. We’d been scrubbed and rubbed and scented with almond-scented oils. Our skin felt like velvet. But even better, we’d experienced just a small piece of Arabic culture in a female-centric atmosphere. As a character in Arabian Night says, “Oh my lord! Verily the bath is the Paradise of this world.”
Accommodations: At the time of our visit, the family-run Hotel du Monge (two-stars) just blocks away offered spotless rooms, good beds, double-glazed windows, English newspaper and free Internet in the lobby.
What to eat: After the baths, stop for baklava, honey-soaked pastries, Turkish coffee or mint tea under the fig trees in the leafy courtyard tearoom. Or, sample lamb couscous and tagines in the full-service restaurant with its rich mosaic ceiling.
The Extras: The Souk (shop) sells pottery, fabrics, incense and Sheesha pipes, good gifts.
The Cost: Our four-hour-long Hammam visit, including steam rooms, soap, robe and towels, tea and pastries, exfoliation and all-over 30-minute massage, cost 48 Euro (about $68).
Beyond the Spa: Why not prolong the Arabic experience with a visit to the nearby Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), an architectural masterpiece of glass and metal. You’ll find a fine museum, bookshop with funky music and Lebanese restaurant and tearoom on the 9th floor offering one of the best free views of Paris. Or sip mint tea at one of Hemingway’s old haunts, Café Dalmas, the famous Café La Chope in A Moveable Feast. It’s at the top of Rue Mouffetard on Place de la Contrescarpe.
What I liked best: The all-female collegial atmosphere. A young Egyptian patron asked, “Is this your first Hammam?” When I nodded yes, she explained that it was almost a daily ritual in her home country. “We all come after supper. The grandmothers wash the grandchildren. The children wash their mothers. Everyone bathes together and it’s a lovely social time before sleep.” Definitely.
Words to the wise: English is not widely spoken here so bring a dictionary or consider it a linguistic adventure. It’s customary to tip your masseuse. Men and Women have separate ham days. And from experience: be careful not to get black soap in your eyes. It stings. For hygiene reasons, bring your own waterproof flip-flops. Bikini bottoms make easy and decent apparel.
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Kate Pocock is an award-winning columnist and freelance travel writer from Toronto. Story and photos are protected under copyright law.