Let me start by saying that I really don't have any nudity issues. I take off all my clothes every day when I shower. But the idea of hanging out naked with a bunch of sweaty strangers strikes me as a little strange.
Yet in Europe people having been going to hammams, or Turkish baths, without a second thought for centuries. They are quite chic at the moment here in Paris and touted as the perfect quick fix for stress relief. Since my life is nothing but pure pressure and considering the amount of red wine I imbibe, a little steamy detoxification couldn't hurt.
Les Bains du Marais is posh with a yuppie clientele, and it's a full service spa as well which is to say it offers massage, facials and a large hipster hair salon. There is a tea room and even a professional henna artist to decorate my fingers or toes, should the whim possess me.
I must have been possessed when I told the woman at the front desk that yes, this was my first time to a hammam and I would like a massage and gommage as well. The word gommage is derivative of the verb gommer, meaning "to rub out" or "to erase." So I gathered a gommage would be a gentle exfoliating scrub. The woman at the front desk assured me that it was a quite enjoyable procedure, guaranteed to make my skin glow.
I got a quick explanation of the order of events in French. Spa lingo is not a particularly strong area in my French lexicon, but I figured it all out. The masseuse would call me when it was time for the gommage and massage. The changing room is this way, the hammam that way and use this phone if I'd like to order any juice or mineral water from the bar. A key yielded a completely full locker containing a very thick terry cloth robe, a pair of comfy shower thongs, and a tasteful middle eastern scarf to wear like a sarong (small sigh of relief).
Apparently, it's custom to take a shower and get clean before you start to sweat. The showers alone were worth the $30 entrance price. None of this standing under a tea-pot business that one comes to expect of French showers. This was a torrential downpour of perfectly heated water.
I wandered past big terry cloth lumps of sleeping women, who had succumbed to the relaxing properties of the eucalyptus-scented steam room. And what a room. Huge! Bigger than my whole apartment. It could easily accommodate 20, but only two other women were lying languidly on the tile benches. And no one was naked. We all looked very stylish and tasteful in our sopping wet and clingy sarongs, so it was quite easy to relax.
Much too soon the masseuse, a big African woman in a one-piece swimsuit, calls my name. She leads me into a separate room, all white tile, not unlike a large shower stall. She whips the sarong from my waist and tells me to lay face down on what looks like a mortician's table. Naked and nervous, I'm in no position to argue. So I climb up on the big, sturdy plastic slab, with a tarp green rubber runner down the middle, presumably for traction, (or maybe to hide blood stains). Suddenly I'm a little worried that I'm going to be hurt.
The minute I position myself she hoses me down... literally turns on a faucet and hoses me, the mortician's table and half of the tile room with thundering, warm water. Now I'm doused and ready for the gommage.
She hits me hard on my back with a scratchy mitt, somewhere between a cat's tongue and sandpaper. But it feels great. She slathers me with something eucalyptus smelling and starts on my shoulders.
"How convenient. Exfoliation and mole removal all at the same time," I'm thinking as she buffs my befreckled back with uniform pressure and vigor. This is not exactly a gentle relaxing procedure, but I'm quite sure that she's getting the job done. She works her way down to the small of my back. It feels lovely.
Since I'm laying stark naked, I wonder what she's going to do with my butt. Some masseuses just sort of dilly-dally around that area, rubbing the hips and upper thighs. No hesitation here from my scrub woman....
She scrubbed down my legs and did the soles of my feet and ankles, which now shine like polished chrome. Likewise, I hadn't really considered my upper inner thighs an area that needed exfoliating attention. But I was in no position to protest when she and the magic mitt were mercilessly going to town on zones previously thought of as "tender."
Then she had me flip over, stomach up. I laid back and thought of England.
I'm wondering what the massage is going to be like. No New Age music or scented candles in a toasty warm room. I got the pugilist special. It felt like I was in a 1950s boxing movie and my cigar chomping manager was giving me a brisk rubdown before I hit the ring. She slapped, she pulled, she even did the chop-chop thing all up and down my back.
Later I took one last turn in the sauna before heading to the salle de repos, which followed the pseudo-Constantinople decor of the rest of the spa. Terra-cotta tile and wrought-iron wall sconces prevail, giving the impression of a Turkish temple with lush, raised-platform beds. I was nothing less than a ancient queen fit to be worshipped. The lights were dim, the bed was soft, and the tea was sweet. My skin was absolutely luminous and my body felt ready to run a marathon. Contented, I dozed in the 20-pound terry cloth robe and hoped heaven would be half as good.
Further spa info
So, how about it? Paris has two hammams proper: Les Bains du Marais and the larger Mosquée de Paris. Call to find out which days are reserved for men or women only. Certain hours are mixed gender and a swimsuit is mandatory. Entrance fees start at 85F and go up to 650F depending on how much you care to be scrubbed, prodded, massaged and manicured. Also worth a mention is the mini-hammam at the Ritz Hotel, where one can steam, swim and Jacuzzi with the rich and famous. For nonmembers there is a 500F entrance fee, but it's the Ritz after all, probably the only place in the world where one really does get what one pays for. Their masseuses are world-class and the facility is posh.
Too timid to tattoo, but love the look? Have a henna. Decorate your hands, feet or anywhere likely to show in summertime's scanty fashions with a traditional or whimsical henna design. Henna is a semi-permanent plant extract that when painted on lasts longer than permanent ink, but not as long as a tattoo. Make an appointment at Les Bains du Marais and you'll find at your disposition a real Moroccan henna artist, an expert in this burgeoning area of body art. Designs average around 150F (although the more intricate, the more expensive) and take anywhere from an hour on upward to execute. Expect it to last three weeks with minimal maintenance, before the henna starts to fade and you're back for another one!
Les Bains du Marais, 31-33, rue des Blancs Manteaux, 4e, 01.44.61.02.02.
Mosquée de Paris, pl du Puits-de-l'Ermite, 5e, 01.43.31.38.20.