I have been curious about the Grand Mosque de Paris for some time. It sits in the 5th arrondissement across from the Jardin des Plantes where I often enjoy walks. I have read about the sugary sweet hot mint tea and the peaceful environment of the courtyards. The mosque is walled with a tall minaret and ornate tile work around the arched doors. The building structure is noticeably different than the Parisian buildings, museums and apartments in the neighborhood. It’s a little oasis unto itself.
While looking around online, I found the mosque offered Turkish baths, called le hammam. This is the equivalent of a public spa with specific stages of steaming, bathing, scrubbing and massage. All of these activities sounded quite good to me. I read most people spent two hours at the bathhouse. What a relaxing morning or afternoon treat!
As I investigated a number of blogs, I learned I would need some courage to take part in this activity. The spa is single sex with specific days allocated by gender. Women are completely unclothed during the hammam. Hmmm, public nudity is something I have tried to avoid my entire life.
Additional levels of courage would be needed for the scrub process called grommage. It is a vigorous exfoliation of your entire body by a woman who wears a glove that could also serve as a torture device with the slightest increase of pressure.
Despite my concerns, the brightly colored tile inside the Mosque entrances and the promise of sweet mint tea were too much for me to pass up. I decided to give it a try.
I paid €43 for the steam, black soap, 10 minute grommage, 10 minute massage and a cup of the sweetened mint tea. There are variations of packages available, including simply having a steam. Once I had my tokens for my services, I headed to the changing room. I stowed my clothing and towel in a locker. While I did not go into the steam rooms in a full coverage ensemble, I made certain to cover up the parts of me that needed coverage. Clearly, the Protestant in me is still alive and well.
At this point, the instructions given in French get a little blurry for me. From the changing room, it was difficult to tell which direction to head. I figured I was headed in the correct direction if the temperature increased.
I believe I was told to shower, steam for 30 minutes, shower again, use my soap, then get scrubbed and then massaged. Turns out that was not exactly right, but it was close enough. After a quick shower rinse, I headed into the first of 3 steam rooms. The rooms were sequenced to be increasingly warmer. I quickly decided the first room was not warm enough and proceeded directly to the second room.
The second room was completely marble. A dim light illuminated the space as well as some small sky lights. The air was thick with steam and droplets of warm water occasionally rained down. It was difficult to see more that a few feet in any direction. Raised marble platforms lined the outer walls as well as a middle platform for lounging. Buckets were available for rinsing or giving yourself a splash of cool water. After acclimating to this room, I moved to the third room the warmest of the spaces.
The third steam room with multi-tiered marble platforms was staggering with heat, so much so that when I was laying down if I propped up my knees they felt as though they were getting a steam burn. There was a cold plunge pool for refreshment. Many of the women alternated between the steam and the pool. The pool water was too cold for me to sit in, but I did splash in it a bit to maintain my senses.
Eventually I retreated to the second cooler steam room, soaped up and rinsed off. Next in the process was the grommet. A no-nonsense woman took my token and told me to lie on a plastic table. She checked to see that I had washed off all my soap and then she got to work.
She was methodical in her practice and scrubbed layers of skin away. Her wiry glove traveled up and down my body, my sides, the tender back of my arms, my toes. You name it, she exfoliated it. The pressure was consistent, surprising and uncomfortable, but I slowly realized the process was breathing life back into my wilted body. I got up from her table and looked at my soft pink skin. I felt shiny and new.
After another shower, I dried off and headed to the massage room. A lightly scented oil was applied and worked into my skin. After the massage, I was told to relax on the daybeds and I was given a mint tea. As I was marinating in the massage oil, I took note of the large space. The brightly colored room was intricately painted and had small multi-colored windows near the ceiling. There was a cupola allowing sunbeams to stream down. The environment was a lively with the chatter of the women giving massages. I began to emerge out of the haze of my sauna and massage.
Recommendations for le Hamman:
- Do not go if you have limited time! You need to queue for the grommet and the massage – this can be a lengthy wait.
- Take a bottle of water
- Two towels are helpful – the Grand Mosque does not provide towels (one towel for the massage and to absorb excess oil, the second for your final shower before you leave for the day)
- Have a €1 coin for a locker & key. You will get it back, but this ensures your clothing, wallet, phone are secured.
- All the rooms are social, chit chat abounds. Do not think of the experience as a quiet day at the spa.
- There are various iterations of nudity. Wear what makes you most comfortable. My quick survey found that most women wore “bottoms” of some sort and were topless.