Turkish Baths in Paris: What You’ll Want to Know

January 4, 2011
Not Your Typical Spa: Turkish Bath Paris

If your mother or close girlfriend visits you in France during your year abroad there’s no better activity than a day at the spa. I’m not referring to a country club outing but to a day at the hamam, or Turkish baths at the Mosquée de Paris. The hamam combines Greco-Roman communal and Turkish steam bathing practices. After the Arab invasion of Alexandria in the 7th century, the baths were incorporated into the building of Muslim mosques. Only in the past two centuries have hamams become dispersed throughout Western Europe and the United States.

I have been to Paris’s only Turkish bath twice now. My first experience was like stepping into an exotic and beautiful far-off land. The courtyard of the Mosque, where you can sit and drink tea, sets the scene for your experience on the interior with its Mediterranean colors: green leafy branches arching overhead and blue tiled murals set in white washed walls. The entry price is €15 and other services cost between €20 and €70. Tip: bring your own pair of flip flops if you are squeamish and do not want to wear the communal ones provided.

They are all bent but seem calm, their expressions pensive and observant as they knead the backs and shoulders of topless dozing women.

Enter the baths through two doors tucked behind a pastry counter where baklavas and other treats are delicately arranged in a display. Here you will find women milling about unhurried, naked except for bathing suit bottoms or underwear. Men are assigned separate days to attend (Fridays and Sundays). Waddling onward, you will pass through a room with four tables, women stationed at the head. They are all bent but seem calm, their expressions pensive and observant as they knead the backs and shoulders of topless dozing women.

Undress in the locker room and head into the shower to lather up with savon noir (black soap). In the olden days, the soap was dispensed from a copper metal case with a handle. Today, it comes in an individual plastic squeeze tube and costs €10 and is also available for purchase at any pharmacy. With the exfoliating scrub still on your skin, enter the warm room (tepidarium) where women pass their time steaming.

Here you may lounge on one of seven large marble platforms (gobek tasi). Fountains are set into the walls of the platforms and drip cold water into plastic beach pails. The buckets aren’t the grooved and inlaid metal pots (tas) they were in the days of yore, but the water will soothe your steaming body when you become overheated. To the same effect, you can step into the caladrium (hot room) where you will find a large marble basin full of cold water, a hot tub in reverse. Many bathers pass hours in relaxed transit between the rooms: steaming and cooling.

Women from all walks of life attend, striding about, uninhibited in their nudity.

While I was unsure of the routine during my first visit, I felt more self-assured by the minute. Women from all walks of life attend, striding about, uninhibited in their nudity. They are happy to guide you through the process of soaping, steaming and soaking. Afterwards, be sure to head to the small chamber in the shower room for a scrubbing (gommage). But be warned: the plastic scrubbing table is communal and the scrubber never changes her exfoliating glove. Granted, by this point, women are so relaxed that it is easy to overlook the hygienic abuses. Moreover, women are required to purchase a personal glove (€5) at the entrance and can exfoliate themselves.

The final step in the bathing process is a petit pause in the cool room (frigidarium or sogukluk). Here you can lounge on mats sipping a delicious tea infused with mint and honey (well worth the extra euros) while awaiting your massage. Because bathers are called to their massages in the order that they arrive at the hamam, you will have a wait if you finish steaming early. (I would not recommend going to the Turkish baths on a tight schedule.)

Turkish Baths Paris: Not Your Typical Spa

Of course, there are worse places to be waiting than tiled rooms of aqua greens and blues, clay reds and yellows, carved wooden pillars and high, foggy domed ceilings. Even the locker rooms simulated a beach setting with sky blue tiles on the ceilings and beige on the floor beneath my feet.

Once a traditional locale for celebrations such as a baby’s 40th day of life or the past equivalent of bridal showers and bachelor parties, today the hamam is a perfect activity for reunions and mother/daughter days out. I would recommend this experience to anyone.

The Grand Mosque is located at 39 Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 5th arrondissement Paris.

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