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.