NOTE: Judith and I both wrote our own account on this adventure, so bear with us, this is a long post, but I think you will enjoy our recounting of the Parisian Turkish Bath…
Ok, so right up front I will tell you that 2 english-speaking girls have no business going to a french-speaking Turkish bath in the heart of Paris – without someone to guide them! What inspired Judith and I to set out on this out of the box adventure to the Grand Mosquée de Paris on Day 8? Why not just go look at art, visit a cathedral, or walk along the Seine?
Judith had the idea to do something “relaxing” on our Saturday in Paris. After all we have walked all day every day since we have been here. So, she gets online and finds this review on tripadvisor and read it to me: “A Hammam (Turkish bath) in Paris – such a treat” The review went like this:
“I visited on the advice of my sister – for a treat. I experienced the ‘formule orientale’ which includes entry to the Hammam, scrub, massage, apple tea followed by a cous cous meal, Turkish pastry and a drink in the restaurant. I t was a lovely experience (take your swimming costume if you are shy/just underpants if you are not) with women of all ages and nationalities relaxing, chatting and bathing. The instructions are difficult to follow, unless you speak French, but just go with the flow – someone will walk you through the ‘ritual’.“
She read the information to me and I thought . . . “hummm, could be fun, something different, a relaxing message and soak in a Turkish bath, includes food, special tea and couscous. I”m in! We will have a nice brisk walk there (aprox 2 miles) and then relax to the experience and enjoy the “whole package”.
Honestly, I was mostly enticed by the sound of a great Mediterranean meal – more than anything. So we set out to find our dark exotic Hammam and never gave a thought to the DETAILS of what we might need for the adventure – you’ll understand what I mean by this later. So first things first…
What is a turkish bath? (Damn I wish I had done my research on this before we left the apartment!)
So, after my morning espresso, we get dressed for the day and set out on our adventure. On our walk we stopped along the way for pics, of course, and to take in new sights of Paris we had not seen before. My favorite was an old antique book store (they are plentiful here) where I picked up a special gift for my grand-niece, Sophie.
The walk there was beautiful in perfect 75-78 degree weather. We were delightfully surprised when we arrived at the Mosquee as we passed the impressive exterior with the massive arched ancient wooden doors and entered into a lovely garden like cafe teeming with people of all shapes, colors and nationalities. We walked through the garden and into the restaurant and tea room looking for signs of a spa or “bath” but couldn’t seem to find it. At last we were directed to a door with the sign “HAMMAM” that seemed hidden behind the bakery shelves in the little bakery area. We went in.
Sandy and I started out yesterday from our apartment and walked almost 2 miles to the La Mosquee in anticipation of an adventure in the art of relaxing – yes, we were going to go for a Turkish bath, a Hammam. We read about it on Trip Advisor and checked the day and time to make sure this was going to be a women-only day; we also read that most women come prepared to shed all clothing with the exception of their underwear, so I thought, whew, at least I have that. So, dressed in shorts and t-shirts we headed out. It was a beautiful 78 degree sunny Saturday and the walk was invigorating. Of course we had to stop along the way to get a Starbucks (yes, even in Paris I still want my iced Chai) and I think Sandy stopped every 10 feet or so to get a picture of something. So, after about an hour, we finally arrived, and boy, were we ready to get the full treatment and take in the exotic surroundings – yep, these two travelers were ready for a memorable out of the ordinary experience.
We turned the corner and stood in front of the Mosque – it was truly beautiful. The two massive, ornate wooden doors were open and beyond those doors was another world. Immediately upon entering your senses were stimulated by all the color – the intricately designed mosaic art, and the flowers, and the trees and the birds – it was stunning. We walked up steps to the first of several tiered patios spread out the width of the mosque; each patio was defined by tiled mosaic planters full of happy flowers and small-limbed trees that stretched out and up toward the sky. These patios were full of small round tables and chairs and the place was packed and bustling with people of all ages engaged in lively conversations. I immediately noticed the tiny etched drinking glasses that sat on many of the tables. They held an amber brown liquid that I assumed was the Mint Tea mentioned in the Trip Advisor review – a tea this Mosque is famous for.
After passing through the eating area patios you entered a pastry bar where you could buy fabulous looking delicacies. I could have stopped right there and just had lunch and tea and I would have been a happy girl. But alas, we were there for the whole treatment and so we walked around looking for the bath place – I mean, to me, it just looked like a really cool restaurant with a bakery. I was starting to feel like we were in the wrong place, but then Sandy finally figured out that the door to the Hammam was alongside the bakery, so in we walked.
Getting by the gatekeeper of the Hammam was our first challenge. We had to select our “package” and pay before going through, so we did our best to communicate using hand gestures and pointing to the area of the menu that seemed like the package we had read about in the online review, so we paid. We were given 2 white towels, 5 pieces of yellow construction paper cut into 2 inch squares with messages (in French of course) stamped on them in red, and 2 tiny packets filled with some amber colored liquid. I assumed it was oil or soap or something, but honestly, with my language disability, there was NO real way of knowing what it was. I think I sucked the nutritional contents out of one of these in a marathon once – Goo! Haha!
As we emerge from the cashier area with our accoutrements, we passed right by the box of mixed flip flops intended for our use on the wet floors. We are met by an older lady dressed in a white uniform who escorts us to the locker area and shows us our locker and how to work the key. I am sure that she had some very good advice for us on how to use the locker, where to put the coins to lock it all up, what the packet of “goo” was, and when we needed to use the yellow notes. I am sure that she was telling us where to go next after we removed and stowed our clothing…but of course we didn’t have a clue what she was saying to us! I was wanting to ask her, where the baths were? Where do we go first – massage or bath? Where are the toilets?!!! Nada. As I have done most of my life, I just went by the seat of my pretty little panties!
Ok, I think you get the picture. And Judith will no doubt go into much detail on the environment, the marble, the hot steam, the ladies who were there, etc etc, so I will let her handle that. But you guys, there was no bath! Just hot slabs of marble in a VERY hot maze of marble rooms. Strategically positioned in each room were buckets and water facets with hoses attached. I mean, what the hell? What are the buckets for, don’t they just relax in the pool of water?
Ok, remember, I told you we PASSED BY the box of flip-flops when we checked in? Yep, so now here we are in this smelly locker room taking off our shoes and I suddenly realized my feet were getting ready to step onto a slippery wet-watery floor – I have no flip flops! So off I go back to the lovely cashier area to DIG INTO THE FLIP FLOP BIN! Gross, ok? And by the way, what is up with these teeny tiny little shoes, it’s like they were for kids or something. I grabbed 2 pair of these miniature flippers and took them back to Judith who had by this time gotten undressed and was ready to go. I get undressed, wrap my towel around me, put my toes into the tiny flip flops and follow her into the steamy, marblized, dark exotic mist.
Important part of the story: Judith heads straight to the shower, opens her pack of goo and starts spreading it all over her. So, I asked her, in an effort to conserve so we would have some for AFTER the massage (the packets were tiny), if I could have some of hers. Of course big sister complied and when I started rubbing it on, OMG! This stuff was the most nasty smelling “whatever” I had ever smelled – and it was NOT lathering!? We quickly rinsed it off, wondering what in the world it was. We emerge from the shower giggling and feeling a little shy and overwhelmed, wondering what to do next, and I spotted a trash can and tossed my packet of stinky goo! Done! Ok, where’s the bath?
THERE IS NO BATH!
When we entered the “bath place” there were women everywhere – lots of women. They were chatting together, or walking around gathering their things, or grabbing a towel or paying the fee for services at the large desk just beyond the entry door. It was really busy. I did immediately notice that all the walls and floors were marble and the ceilings were very high and ornately decorated with mosaics. Very cool. However, if it weren’t for all the décor, the steamy air and musky odor that hit you as you walked in might make you think, for a minute there, that you were in a high-school gymnasium.
We got up to the desk to pay and of course the lady did not speak English. Luckily, on the wall beside the desk was a list of services – all in French of course. So Sandy, standing beside me, looked at the price list and panicked so I just, very coolly, pointed to the one that was $63.00. Now why I pointed to that one remains to be understood as there were two other “packages” that were less expensive, but I just thought that that particular one had more “services” listed so why not get the full treatment. Of course I had no clue what the services were, but hey, won’t someone just lead us from one to the other? Of course. That’s the way it would be, So we each paid the fee and got our yellow tickets – each ticket naming the service we were to receive – a 30-minute massage, steam and shower followed by lunch and Mint Tea. They also handed us these little packets of brown liquid which I assumed was soap.
We headed through the open room in front of us and tried not to stare at all the naked ladies (of all ages, shapes and nationalities) laying around the circumference of the room on these large square marble platforms. Each platform had a faucet and most of the women had a plastic bucket. I wondered what the buckets were for. I mean, it was hot, but I just thought, man, they ought to just go get into the big pool of water…wonder where the pool is?
After wandering about a bit and observing all the other naked women with their buckets of water and standing under the hoses rinsing, we finally got it. This was about steam and marble and dousing yourself with cool water when you can hardly stand it anymore. Uh huh. So we found our dark exotic marble slab in the mysterious steam and sat down. Giggling and laughing as you know I do, it was hard, no, impossible, for me to relax! I sit with Judith for about 10 minutes in the steam with nothing but my panties, a damp white towel and a bucket of cold water, and then honey, I was done. Where’s the massage? Without turning this post into a book, let me just say that at this point this adventure turns into a Lucy and Ethel episode!
After some drama getting change for the locker and retrieving the correct yellow tickets, we find our way to the massage tables. There I am greeted by a young lady who directs me to lay down on my back on the table….I am still a bit giggly. Judith is on the table in front of me. We are both in the middle of this huge marble room with 4 massage tables and women all around lounging on the pads that are laid on top of the marble slabs that surround the room. I am laying there smiling, thinking what a nice day it has been, the differences in language yet the similarities in women – I am trying to relax and just chill and reflect. Then my attendant begins to rub oil on me, no, she starts pouring oil on me! Now, don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying this, the lavender scent of the oil is heavenly and it felt great, but really? This is not like a massage at home, she is pouring this stuff on me and just gently rubbing it all over my body, my face, my feet, my HAIR! My HAIR?! She is giving me a HOILY experience (thanks Philippe!) in this holy place! And then I think…HOLY SMOKES! I threw the soap away! I threw it away!
I cannot tell you how hard it was to keep my hysterical laughter at bay. I tried thinking bad thoughts, I tried thinking sad thoughts, I took deep breaths, I tried to use my mind to control my body, but still she kept pouring oil on my body and hair and all I could think about was how crazy it was that I had thrown the goo away, the smelly stuff that would help rinse all this oil off of me so I could have my Mediterranean meal! I was completely disembodied with laughter! I didn’t want the attendant to think I was crazy or laughing at her so I did the only think I knew to do – I raised up and shouted “Judith! I threw the soap away!” The place grew quiet.
This really nice older lady dressed in a white uniform met us and led us to the locker room. I thought, OK, this is great – we store our clothes and she will start our routine. She will be the one who takes care of us. Well, not so fast. She told us how to work the locker, gave us the key, put our yellow tickets on the top shelf of the locker, smiled and walked off. Crap. It was all in French. So I thought, this is crazy, it’s not rocket science, and I started stripping. Sandy just stared at me and said “where is the bathroom?” I said, “What? Why?” She said, “I have to go to the bathroom.” So, she left to look for a bathroom and I waited there, pretty much naked and used my towel to cover myself. She finally gets back and we throw our clothes into the locker and try to take the key – great, I thought, the damn locker is broken. Sandy, clutching her towel to her chest, starts getting agitated messing with the key and we finally figured out that we needed to put in 1 Euro for it to work. So she goes and gets change and comes back and finally, we are on our way.
Trying not to look like we haven’t done this before, we wander around looking for the bath pool and found these big open showers.Not knowing what else to do other than to sit in the “big room” with all the naked women, I walk in the shower and immediately just start taking a shower. I mean, at least I was doing something. I open the little brown packet only it’s not soap – it’s an oily mix of something but I kept rubbing it on anyway. Sandy was looking at me like I was crazy and kept asking why I was taking a shower and I said because you’re supposed to. So, she took one too but threw her packet in the trash because she hated the smell. From there I nonchalantly mosey over to the steam room and sit down and Sandy follows. We sit there a few minutes and Sandy says, “I don’t like steam rooms.” And I said, OK, but it’s good for our skin so let’s just sit here a while. Five minutes later we decide, hey, let’s go get our massage. So we go back to our locker, grab our yellow “massage” ticket and find the little lady who first helped us. She led us to the “big room” with all the naked ladies, and there, right in the middle of the room, were massage tables. She put me on one and Sandy on the other right across from me. By this time I had lost any self-awareness I might have had and jumped up on the table on my back and closed my eyes. The massage lady started to pour oil all over me – she rubbed oil from head to foot starting with my face and hair down to my feet. She used this oil liberally and I laid there thinking, gee, I sure am going to wish I had some soap after this. I was starting to really relax when I heard Sandy shout from across the room…”JUDY!” What the hell? I looked up at the lady and said,” That’s my sister” and she smiled knowingly and nodded. I didn’t catch what else she said; I just tuned her out and went back to relaxing. Evidently, Sandy got freaked out when her lady started pouring oil in her hair and she realized she had no soap to wash it out. (She’s a bit prissy, my sister….)
With that outburst I was so embarrassed that I finally settled down into the oil, loving it, accepting it, embracing it, taking in the moment. That is what you would expect me to do, right? Well I did, and I finished my HOILY massage and returned to my locker, wiped off the oil with my towel, and wished that I had been as smart as the other girls were had come armed with a bag of essentials for visiting a Turkish bath. Now that I have learned the ropes, next time, I will. Now, on to that famous tea…
After a truly relaxing massage, we used our towels to wipe off as much oil as we could, slicked our hair back, and walked into the restaurant. By this time we were starving and ready for that Mint Tea. We sat down in this beautiful area off the patio and sure enough the waiter greeted us with two glasses of hot Mint Tea – I say glasses because this hot tea is served in beautiful, small gold-rimmed etched glasses. We had a wonderful dinner of couscous and chicken baked with onions, prunes and almonds served with hot sourdough bread with spicy diced carrots and a Mediterranean relish on the side. After this crazy fun day and a truly relaxing dinner…we walked the two miles back home.
Of course with all the pictures we’ve gotten on this trip I wish we had some of the Turkish bath – the Hammam – but of course, that would not be allowed….and by the way, there was no bath pool. I’m sure you had gathered that by now.
At the end of this day, I do want to say that I believe these are the kinds of experiences that have real lasting value – I had so much fun with my precious sister and I am so grateful that we have gotten to do this together again this year. I know we are making lasting memories that will bring us joy and laughter in the years to come.
Love & Peace…
2 Sisters in Paris