Holy hot hammam! - Ann Mah | Ann Mah

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Holy hot hammam!

By Ann | September 15, 2009

Have you ever been to a hammam? I hadn’t. Until last week, I’m not sure I could even accurately define “hammam” (it’s an Arabic word, meaning steam bath). Paris abounds with these Turkish baths, and when my friend Heather came to town, she had the bright idea of getting steamed and scrubbed. After extensive internet research, off we trotted to Les Bains du Marais. (Warning: Food blog purists take note — today’s post is devoid of anything of an edible nature.)

We visited on a Saturday, which was a journée mixte, meaning the baths were open to both men and women. (Some days are reserved for single sex use — check the website for details.) Bathing suits are obligatoire on mixed days, which I appreciated, prudish American that I am.

Aside from the hammam, the baths have a hair salon, masseurs, and juice bar. A hammam (2 hours maximum) + gommage (scrubbing) costs 70€.

Upon entering, you’re given a towel, robe, and scrubbing mitt. You then proceed to the vestiare (changing room) to disrobe. And then it’s into the hammam…

As you can see, my high-tech photo equipment captured perfectly the tiled room’s hot and steamy atmosphere. You might think all that dampness would make it difficult to breathe, but the air is perfumed with the cleansing zing of eucalyptus, so that each warm breath you draw is oddly fresh. It’s sort of like sitting in a giant tub of Vicks vapor rub.


Here’s what the baths actually look like (photo courtesy of linternaute.com).

When it’s time for your gommage, you’re led into a semi-private cubicle, located off the main baths. Our scrubbers were a pair of ferocious North African women. Before our appointment, Heather and I had discussed what we would do if asked to take off our bikini tops, and agreed that we would politely decline. Yet when faced with our fierce scrubbers, we had our tops off faster than you could say big fat wimp.

We meekly handed over our scrubbing mitts and they barked instructions at us in the imperative: “Lie down! Turn over! On your stomach! Raise your arms! In front of you!” Faced with such a barrage of unfamiliar vocabulary (body parts and prepositions are my weakest area), I flailed about. The scrubber resorted to arranging me like a piece of meat.

The scrubbing — a not unpleasant (but not really pleasant, either) sensation — lasted about ten minutes, during which time almost every inch of my skin was scraped. Afterwards, you are scrubbed again lightly with exfoliating soap, and rinsed off with a hose, a bit like a dog.

If it all sounds a bit disagreeable, that’s because it was. Kind of. That is, steaming in the hammam felt relaxing, even purifying, but, let’s face it, le gommage is not for the shy, easily embarrassed, or faint of heart. Yet after we had exited the hammam, gotten dressed, and were sipping sweet mint tea, I felt a pure and refreshing sense of calm radiating throughout my body.

And, to be perfectly honest, my skin has never felt so soft.

Topics: Totally unrelated to food, Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “Holy hot hammam!”

  1. heather Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 8:47 am

    ann, this big fat wimp was giggling like mad as i read this post. now you have me wanting to jump on the first flight to paris and dash back to the hammam (my elbows are starting to lose their babylike softness again!). i will let you know when i get a chance to check out the hammam at the standard. something tells me that le gommage techniques won’t be quite the same …

  2. Kim B. Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 2:40 am

    You’ve confirmed it for me — I can’t go hammam-ing! My legs get so dry and itchy that I would be in sheer agony after some lady had scrubbed and scrubbed.

    This is a shame because I love the baths! I used to live in Hungary and am a devotee of the Gellert. My best friend, Kathryn, and I went together, and were the nerdy Americans wearing our little white cotton aprons while everyone else was au naturel. Boy did we look dumb. We finally realized we could go with the flow. . .but not if we were together. So on vacations back there, we would carefully “plot” our times to go to the baths so as not to be there at the same time!!! Then we were each able individually to feel cool and liberated and European — just not in front of each other!

    The “vizi” (water) massage is also torturous, but not to the same degree as the gommage. Mainly it’s because you’re laying naked on a metal gurney with some foam layer on top; some old néni is slapping you up and down with soapy water — which is fine when you start, and it’s warm, but by the end, you’re just being subjected to slaps of cold water by an old lady in a torpedo bra and granny panties.


    Loved the post, couldn’t believe you were photographing inside!!! I thought oh no, how far will she go?!!

  3. CK Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Your experience reminded me of wonderful Russian banyas. The full treatment involved dipping yourself in a pool of icy water, sweltering in a torrid sauna, then getting smacked on the back by birch leaves. Punctuated with shots of vodka, it was totally bracing.
    PS: Did they serve green eggs in the hammam?

  4. Ann Says:
    September 22nd, 2009 at 5:12 am

    Heather — Any time you want to come back for a hammam session, I’m free! I think they pump some sort of skin-hardening substance into the mist at the hammam because my elbows are like elephant’s knees already.

    Kim B. — Ha ha! I love your Hungarian hammam stories! By the way, you can just do the hammam portion (sans gommage) at les Bains! I think it costs 30 euros for two hours of steaming. Apparently people buy the special exfoliating shop at the hammam boutique and perform self-gommage in the hammam (there’s a shower). Is that too weird, though?

    CK — Bracing, yes. But birch leaves? Is that pleasant?

  5. CK Says:
    September 22nd, 2009 at 9:12 am

    The birch branch pleasantness quotient is directly related to your vodka intake. The more vodka, the pleasanter the branch smacks.

  6. Liz Says:
    September 25th, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    I love checking out your blog when I get the chance, unfortunately I’m losing all the French I learned at Middlebury. After a violent coup d’etat in Madagascar, I’ve just started my Peace Corps service again here in Ecuador. My French may be suffering, but my Spanish is improving with each passing day!

    Like the others above, I was brought back to a particularly hilarious hammam experience while reading about yours. Mine only cost 10 dirham (about a euro), and I went while visiting a friend in Morocco, I however was scrubbed down by a local woman who simply felt I wasn’t doing well enough on my own. Embarrassing, yes – but also a once in a like time experience.

  7. Ann Says:
    September 26th, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Liz, Lovely to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by! Hm, perhaps gommage scrubbers are universally fierce!

  8. Sandy Maberly Says:
    November 4th, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    My friend Stephanie just returned from Turkey where she raved about the hammam which she and her husband had received while on vacation. Don’t think they have those sort of things around Tulsa but maybe the next time I make it over to Paris…….

  9. Mary Honecker Says:
    August 14th, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Would you be kind enough to tell me how hot it was in the warm and hot rooms? I can’t sit very long in a hot or wet sauna and so I don’t know if this is the right experience for me. Thanks! Mary

  10. Ann Says:
    August 14th, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Mary, there was only one steam room — and it was very hot!

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