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Spa Therapy: Navigating Paris’ Hammam Scene

Still stranded in Paris? Step away from the ticketing hotline and treat yourself to a little trip to the steam baths. Guest blogger, writer and illustrator Badaude shares her favorite spots along with a little know-how on navigating the traditional hammam (North African steam baths). We can’t think of a better way to make the most of your bonus days in Paris!

It may be getting warmer, but some April days in Paris still start off pretty icy. But it’s not all bad. April is the last month I can indulge in my monthly treat at the only place you can get truly warm in the Paris winter – the hammam.

Paris has lots of hammams: traditional North African steam baths, not chi-chi hotel spas.  They cost on average €45 per session including massage or exfoliation (gommage) and pastries — and who could fail to be attracted by this combination?  There’s a hammam for every kind of Parisian, but how do you choose? I’m now a hammam veteran, but here’s what happened at my first visit to my favorite, the Hamman de La Grande Mosquée de Paris.

Badaude - HamamsIllustration by Badaude – Click on the image to view larger version

I step off the street through a hidden doorway behind the main entrance and hand over the notes to the cashier at the till in exchange for a handful of colored paper raffle tickets and a mysterious squishy black plastic sachet. I knew this was savon noir. I’ve seen it for sale in big plastic tubs at the marché at the Place des Fêtes in Belleville. What I don’t quite know is what to do with it. Or when. A visit to the hammam might make you warmer, but they certainly don’t hand out an instruction booklet.

My outside eyes take time to adjust to the blue patterns of the Moroccan tiles. Looking up through the steamy light filtering down from the small, domed window in the ceiling, I’m suddenly in fairyland, a Dulac illustration from Sleeping Beauty.

I pass a notice: sabots obligatoires (I go back and exchange my shoes for the plastic flip-flops provided). I follow the clothed clients between four massage tables to the narrow changing room, pack my clothes into a wobbly metal locker and wander back to the main room. Even more like a fairy-tale, there are doors with no signs and no handles. Which one should I pick?

One of them leads to a brightly lit room with a shower and a door back to the changing rooms. Obviously wrong.

The other opens into a darker room with hidden showers behind partitions. Is this where I use the soap? There’s nobody there to ask. The next room is warmer. There’s a high-pressure shower-gun, women giggling as they hose each other down. Then there’s another of the sleepy rooms, dreamier and hotter than the first, with a central platform and booths at the side lined with blue cushions. There are women in small groups; friends, sisters, mothers, grandmothers and daughters.

In the hammam I, refreshingly, discover that not all ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’. There are all shapes and sizes here, from lissome teenagers to ample grannies, all happily bien dans leurs peaux (comfortable in their skins). Maybe this is the real Frenchwoman’s secret.

There’s one more room, so unbearably hot that if I stand up, my eyeballs almost steam over. I lie down on the ledge framing the freezing plunge pool. Once I get used to the heat, it’s incredibly relaxing.

I still have the (now wet) tickets and the little packet of soap.

I go back through the warm rooms, which now seem much colder. I use the soap just to get rid of it.

I have my tickets for a massage and gommage. The massage table room now seems positively chilly. I go back to the changing room for a book. I pretend to read but I’m wondering how to get my massage.

Then, after about 15 minutes, I notice women who are coming in writing their names on a paper in the corner. It must be the list for massages. I add mine. I notice the list is very long.

There’s a smaller queue for the gommage and I soon find out why. After sandpapering my back with a hard loofah mitt, the masseuse turns me over like a side of meat and attacks my breasts. Then – no, she can’t be –

- yes, she does faces too!

(I’m sure this must be doing me good)

OK, that’s enough. I think I’ll have my mint tea and pastry now (which are delicious…)

What I should have done: a first timer’s guide:

  • You exchange your shoes for flip-flops at reception. If you’ve bought a ticket for a massage check if you get a numbered ticket; otherwise you have to book in and add your name to the list.
  • Get changed and shower. After you shower, rub the savon noir all over your body. As you go through the steam rooms it soaks in, softening your skin.
  • Progress from room to room. There might be buckets in some rooms. Fill them from a tap and splash your skin with cold water. In the hottest room, you can take a plunge in the cold pool, if you dare.
  • After you’ve spent between half an hour to 90 mins in the hammam, go and get gommed.  Shower off the remains.
  • Then you can lounge and wait for your massage, drinking mint tea.
  • After your massage, get dressed and progress to the tea room for more mint tea and pastries or a tagine (full meal).

But which Hammam?

There is a hammam for every Parisian. The Mosquée will suit you if you want to relax in the fairytale atmosphere. It’s the most convivial – go with friends – but the massage and gommage can be a bit halfhearted. The Hammam de Medina Centre in Northern Paris is spotless, bright and businesslike. You get the best, and the toughest, gommage here. Les Bains du Marais is a must-know address for fashionistas and is full of models and fashion editors during fashion week.

Addresses: (Note that most hammams have different hours for men and women, and some have mixed sessions. Remember to check the websites for opening hours):

Hammam de la Mosquée : Entry + gommage : 29 €. 39, rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire (Ve). Tel : 01 43 31 18 14. www.la-mosquee.com

Hammam Medina Centre : Entry + gommage : 39 €. 43-45, rue Petit (XIX e ). Tel: 01 42 02 31 05. www.hammam-medina.com

Les Bains de Marais : Entry + gommage 70 €. 31-33 rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris, (IVe), Tel : 0144 61 02 02 www.lesbainsdumarais.fr

Other Hammams I haven’t visited:

Hammam Pacha, 17, rue Mayet (VI e ). Entree 35 €. Tel. : 01 43 06 55 55. www.hammampacha.com

Les Bains de Saadia : Entrée + gommage : 34 €. 30, rue des Solitaires (XIXe). Tel. : 01 42 38 61 68. www.lesbainsdesaadia.com

If you liked this, you might be interested in:

  • Secrets of Paris’ Top 5 Paris spas
  • The low-down on French women’s real beauty secrets
  • Paris by Appointment Only dishes on Paris’ best pedicurist

Written by Badaude for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.

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Written by Badaude

BadaudeBadaude (“a person given to idle observation of everything with wonder or astonishment; a credulous or gossipy idler”) is an award-winning illustrator who writes and draws a weekly column for The Times Fashion, and whose work has also appeared in The Guardian as well as many other publications worldwide. Artist-in-residence at legendary Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Company and the Port Eliot Festival, she teaches at The Idler Academy and her illustrated book of London Walks is about to be published by the Tate. Her blog is a Webby Honoree.

Website: Badaude

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