Hammams: Getting hot and sweaty in Paris

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2012 - 2:10 PM

A North African bath tucked into the back of the Great Mosque was built to honor Muslims who fought for France.

Photo: Eddie Thomas, Star Tribune

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Between climbing the sky-high stairways of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Montmartre, touring Paris can make the soles weary.

In the waning days of a recent stay, I decided to pause my aggressive pursuit of la vie Parisienne.

It's the paradox of vacationing in Paris: You want to absorb as much as possible to hold you until -- God and wallet willing -- the next visit. In this goal-oriented process, however, you can miss an opportunity to practice a French habit: Taking your time.

I chose to dial down the Francomania in a slightly intimidating way. I went to a hammam, a traditional North African steam bath at the Grand Mosque of Paris, where I paraded topless with other women through various rooms and got not one but two rubdowns in this semi-public state of déshabillé.

Why would I do such a thing? To experience something I didn't think I could do: nudity and massages with an audience. I was scared. But I was tired of walking for miles every day, and I believe the words of Erasmus: "Fortune favors the audacious."

Now before I get to the details, allow me to aver that I am a 46-year-old woman who is not accustomed to getting naked in front of a group. So I was nervous.

I set out for the 5th arrondissement with a bag carrying a towel, shampoo and my bathing suit bottoms. I was not sure I'd enter the hammam. If I got scared when I saw it, well, then I'd just have to go get a decadent lunch -- with wine. I found the tricky entrance at the back of the mosque, tucked in a corner behind a bakery that is at the back of a cafe facing the Jardin des Plantes.

The mudéjar-style white mosque and its 108-foot minaret are extraordinary. The French built the mosque, opened in 1926, to honor the Muslims who fought for France in World War I. The mosque's leaders also provided a secret refuge -- and fake Muslim passports -- for Jews during World War II.

Inside the hammam, I found two Danish women puzzling over the instructions from the concierge and a Muslim woman who spoke French. I translated to English, paid 60 euros and set off to navigate the baths. Shoes get left at the front door, you grab a pair of flip-flops from a basket, get a small towel from the concierge and change out of your street clothes in the narrow hallway of a locker room.

The older Muslim women who work at the hammam were fully clothed in white robes, but the rest dressed as I did: topless. Sure, I was incredibly self-conscious at first, but it turns out the more nakedness surrounding you, the less you or anybody else cares.

The first step is a shower, then into a steam room of moderate heat where you open a palm-sized packet of "savon noir," a gritty amber gel that you rub onto your skin.

From there, the instruction was to relax in the hottest room for at least 20 minutes.

As I am accustomed to 100-degree yoga classes, I expected to maybe catch a chill in that room. But, whoa, was it hot, and the granite benches scalded the backs of my thighs. I wasn't sure I could last, but then I realized the thigh-deep pool was there for a reason. Step in. Crouch to maximize submersion. Get cool. Get out. Get hot. Repeat. Ahhhhhh. And thus I did pass the better part of two hours.

The mosque hammam allows men, but most days are for women only and the genders are never mixed. I estimated two dozen women wandered in and out of the rooms during my half-day visit. Before indoor plumbing, North Africans went to hammams to bathe. Then they became gathering spots for women to relax and gossip. Not much gossiping went on in Paris because we all spoke different languages.

After the hottest room comes a gritty scrubdown called gommage. Yes, you get on the table topless and a stranger rubs you down from head to toe while others watch. As the women before me hopped onto the table, we would exchange a look that transgressed the language barrier to say, "I can't believe I'm doing this, but what the heck."

Then it was on to the big finale: a massage in the grand room with brightly colored windows, ornately decorated walls and massage tables at the center. The idea is to lounge around on cushioned benches as you wait your turn.

I brought a book and sipped the sublime mint tea until my turn came and I got on a table, still topless. I closed my eyes as my masseuse rubbed oil over my body. She rubbed my shoulders as I sat on the edge of the table, finishing the 30-minute massage with a smile and a gentle "Ça va?"

After showering and getting dressed, I left fully relaxed and pleasantly proud of my courage. I'd call it a happy ending.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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